Francis to visit Greece April 16 in flash show of solidarity with migrants

Vatican City — Pope Francis will make a flash visit to the Greek island of Lesbos next week alongside Orthodox Christian Patriarch Bartholomew in a joint ecumenical sign of solidarity with refugees facing deportation to Turkey under a new European Union agreement, the Vatican has announced.

The pontiff will make the visit, organized unusually rapidly, on April 16 and will spend only a few hours on the island. Because of the quick preparation for the trip, he will be traveling with a limited entourage.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said Francis wants to make the visit because he sees “an important emergency” taking place due to the situation facing refugees.

“There is an intense, difficult, and dramatic situation for many people,” said Lombardi. “The pope naturally wants to be present to call attention and give a sense of solidarity and responsibility on behalf of all the faith community.”

Noting Bartholomew’s presence for the visit, along with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ieronymos II, the spokesman said: “It is right that this takes place in an ecumenical way … manifesting also that the Christian churches are united before the great problems of humanity.”

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.

Rumors of Francis’ possible visit to Lesbos were first reported Tuesday, 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."

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’ visit will be only the second by a pope to Greece, following John Paul II’s trip to Athens in 2001. That earlier trip was the first visit by a pontiff to the country, which is 98 percent Greek Orthodox, in more than 1,000 years.

In his visit, John Paul met with then Greek Orthodox Primate Christodoulos and apologized for Catholics’ historic mistreatment and violence against the Orthodox. The two also broke a long-standing taboo by praying together at a spot said to be where the apostle St. Paul preached to Athenian Christians.

Bartholomew is the symbolic leader of the various Orthodox churches, based in Istanbul. Francis previously visited the patriarch 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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