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Pope leaves Greece with three Syrian refugee families, calls for ‘compassion’

Filippo Monteforte, AFP | Pope Francis greets migrants at a camp in the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16, 2016

Pope Francis made an emotional appeal at a Greek migrant camp Saturday for the world to show “common humanity” in facing the migrant crisis, before bringing 12 Syrian refugees back with him to the Vatican.

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"I want to tell you, you are not alone... do not lose hope," the pope told refugees as he visited the Moria migrant detention center in Lesbos with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, calling on the world to respond to the tragedy "in a way worthy of our common humanity".

The Catholic pontiff toured the migrant camp, waving and offering blessings to refugees and migrants who are now stuck on Lesbos after last month's EU-Turkey deal aimed at easing the flow of migrants.

POPE FRANCIS TO REFUGEES: 'YOU ARE NOT ALONE'

The Moira camp holds approximately 3,000 people in conditions that aid workers and politicians have described as unacceptable.

One man wept uncontrollably and wailed as he knelt down before Francis, exclaiming "Thank you, God. Thank you! Please Father, bless me!"

Children offered Francis drawings and the pope praised one little girl for her artwork. Then, as he handed it off to his staff, he stressed "Don't fold it. I want it on my desk."

Vatican offers refuge

As he walked by them, shaking hands with the men and bowing to the women, the refugees shouted out their homelands: "Afghanistan." ''Syria."

After the visit, three families of Syrian refugees boarded Pope Francis’s plane heading back to the Vatican, confirming earlier local media reports. The three families, including six children, are all Muslim and had their homes bombed during the Syrian war.

“The pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees, accompanying on his plane to Rome three families of refugees from Syria, 12 people in all, including six children,” a statement issued by the Vatican said.

The Vatican will take responsibility for supporting the families, but the Catholic Sant'Egidio community will help them settle initially.

“Religious visit”

The Vatican insisted that Pope Francis' five-hour visit was purely for humanitarian and religious reasons, and not meant as a direct criticism of a new deal whereby the EU have begun deporting new arrivals back to Turkey. But Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, the Vatican official in charge of migrants, has said the deal treats migrants as merchandise and fails to recognise their dignity as human beings.

The pope’s high-profile visit is expected to pile further pressure on the already controversial deal between the EU and Turkey.

However, migrant arrivals in Greece have fallen significantly this year in the wake of the EU-Turkey deal and the closure of borders.

"Humanitarian disaster"

When Pope Francis arrived on the island, he was greeted by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians.

"This is a voyage marked by sadness, a sad voyage," the pope told reporters during the flight from Rome to Lesbos.

"We will witness the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. We will see so many people who are suffering, who are fleeing and do not know where to go," he said.

"And we are also going to a cemetery, the sea. So many people never arrived," he said.

The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of refugees, the poor and downtrodden the focus of his ministry as pope, denouncing the "globalisation of indifference" that the world shows the less fortunate.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)

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