Pope Francis transformed the lives of a dozen Syrian refugees on Saturday when he plucked three families from a crowded camp on the Greek island of Lesbos and took them back to Rome.
Six adults and six children – apparently chosen at random – passed in hours from being inmates of a “closed” facility in Greece to new arrivals in continental Europe, where they will receive all the help the Holy See can provide.
The Pope’s dramatic gesture during an intensely emotional visit to Lesbos was intended as a pointed signal to Europe. But aid workers noted that he had left behind another 53,000 migrants in Greece – and 3,000 in the overcrowded camp from which chance had allowed the fortunate 12 to be liberated.
The Pope also rued the fate of those who drowned while making the perilous journey across the Aegean from Turkey. En route to Lesbos, he described how the sea had become the “cemetery” for the “worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War”.
When he arrived in Lesbos, Pope Francis was driven to Moria camp. Journalists are usually barred from entering this disused army barracks, where careful preparations had been made for the visit.
Walls were suddenly repainted, the sewerage system repaired and several dozen refugees quietly dispatched to another camp – which the Pope did not see – to ease the problem of overcrowding.
Once inside Moria, the visitor and his entourage of bearded Greek Orthodox priests – a rare show of unity between rival Churches – received a tumultuous welcome. Tearful mothers and bewildered children gathered to shake or kiss his hand.
Pope Francis is greeted by Greek Orthodox bishops as he arrives on Lesbos to highlight the plight of refugees Credit: EPA
One middle-aged man was so overcome that he broke down and prostrated himself at the Pope’s feet. “Please father bless me,” he pleaded. “Father bless me because I am dirty.”
The weeping man, who described himself as a Pakistani Christian, clutched at the visitor’s ankles. Visibly moved by his pleas, the Pope bent forward and gently encouraged him to stand.
A little girl in a white t-shirt – whose mother wore a Muslim veil – knelt and bowed at his feet, prompting him to lift her delicately from the floor.
As he moved among the refugees, children handed him colourful drawings, including one by an Afghan boy wearing a green t-shirt and with plastic sunglasses balanced on his head.
The Pope accepted every gesture gracefully; when handed a painting by a little girl, he passed the offering to his aides with the stern instruction “not to bend” it because he wanted the artwork “for his desk” in the Vatican.
The Pope then addressed the assembled refugees with words of encouragement and of hope.
“I want to tell you that you are not alone,” he said. “In these weeks and months you have endured much suffering in your search for a better life. Many of you felt forced to flee situations of conflict and persecution for the sake, above all, of your little children – of your little ones here.”
The Pope added: “You have made great sacrifices for your families. You know the pain of having left behind everything that is dear to you. Many others like you are also in camps or towns, waiting and trying to build new lives on this continent.”
As the Pope left Lesbos, the Vatican confirmed a rumour that had been circulating all day. He was indeed taking 12 refugees back to Rome with him. The fortunate ones were three Syrian families, apparently chosen at random from among the residents of Moria.
“The Pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees,” explained a statement from the Vatican. Once in Rome, the arrivals will be supported by the Holy See and cared for by the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio.
Under the European Union’s agreement with Turkey, however, all of the refugees left behind will have a very different fate. Those who arrived in Greece after March 20 should simply be sent back to Turkey. The main goal of this scheme is to deter people from risking the dangerous journey across the sea by breaking the link between reaching a Greek island and entering Europe.
While commending the Pope’s gesture, aid workers pointed out the irony. “The Pope has sent a strong message in relocating 12 people, including women and children,” said Jane Waite, the deputy director of the International Rescue Committee in Greece.
“These refugees were randomly selected and are the very few lucky ones. For the 53,000 that remain in Greece their life in limbo continues.”
Officials point out that the flow of arrivals in Europe has steadily diminished since the deal with Turkey came into effect. Last month, only 25,000 refugees entered EU member states, compared with 57,000 in February.
Pope Francis is oppressed by the human suffering that lies behind the statistics. On his way to Lesbos, he told journalists that he was embarking on a “voyage marked by sadness”, adding: “We will witness the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War.”
As his plane flew over the Aegean, he added: “And we are also going to a cemetery: the sea. So many people never arrived.”
By bleak coincidence, a boat was intercepted off the coast of Lesbos a few hours before the Pope’s arrival. The dinghy was carrying 41 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. They were brought ashore and immediately detained.