Francis considering flash Greece visit amid migrant crisis

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis is considering making a trip to Greece just as the country has begun deporting migrants to Turkey under a new European Union agreement, the Vatican has confirmed.

Vatican Radio reports that Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, head of the Holy See Press Office, has said there have been discussions about a visit but that dates and details have yet to be worked out.

Confirmation of the possible papal visit comes Tuesday after Italian language reports earlier in the day that Francis is planning to make a quick, one-day visit to the Greek island of Lesbos April 15.

Those reports were spurred by a statement from the Orthodox church in Athens that the pope had expressed a desire for such a visit to draw attention to the humanitarian problems migrants face, as well as the need for "an immediate cessation of hostilities in the wider Mediterranean region."

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based symbolic leader of the different Orthodox churches, has also reportedly confirmed he would visit the island alongside Francis.

The visit, should it go ahead, would be remarkable for the quick organization by the Vatican, the potent symbolism of having the pontiff greet refugees, and for the encounter between the leader of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches.

Greece and a number of other European countries around the Mediterranean Sea have been facing an influx of migrants in the past year. The European Union made an agreement with Turkey last month that all "irregular migrants" arriving in Greece from Turkey would be sent back.

For every refugee returned, another refugee is theoretically supposed to be resettled from Turkey to the EU.

The agreement has been criticized by several human rights groups, who say refugees being returned to Turkey from Greece may not be adequately aware of their rights or the possibility of claiming asylum.

Francis has drawn attention to the migration crisis throughout his papacy. On his first visit as pope in July 2013, he traveled to the Italian island of Lampedusa to highlight migrants' struggles.

Francis previously visited Bartholomew in Turkey in November 2014.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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