Pope Francis has described the Mediterranean crossing from Africa to Europe as a “black page” in mankind’s history, but also praised the migrants he met as “glorious” and “powerful”.
His comments during a trip to Lesbos, where he has been on the island of a thousand deaths for more than a decade, appeared aimed at alleviating criticism that he has been silent about the plight of migrants.
He said the European Union had no right to close its borders, and urged Europe to abandon “old habits” and ask itself “who it is” that is responsible for the mass migration.
“We have seen one dark page in the history of mankind, the departure of so many human beings, of so many migrants, to our continent from distant lands,” he said.
“I’ve come to tell you that it’s no longer enough to close the door and ask God to take the migrants back. One day they will come back.”
He has called for a “humanitarian” immigration policy, but made no reference to asylum seekers in his public remarks about Greece and Italy.
He said the EU had become overrun by bureaucracy, ending up with governments with no identity.
At the same time, he said the civilised world was not being told the “true” story of migration and how many migrants had risked everything to reach Europe.
“They came for a better life. They came for a future. But because of ‘illiteracy’ (of policy) they were not told the true story. Europe became a supermarket where everything is made and sold. They did not know who they were leaving behind.”
He added: “Nobody knows who they are, where they come from, the country they are from, the colour of their skin, their language, their religion.”
Using the Greek word “ghdelen,” or “strangers,” he told the migrants in the audience “you are glorious and powerful. You are Gods’ own children. Do not become useless, bitter or savage. The world owes you something.”
On his second day of the visit, Pope Francis visited the island of Lesbos to seek forgiveness from its Catholic community and local people for the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Nazi occupation.
The Pope took a boat from Crete to Lesbos on Sunday, where he embraced and kissed many migrants trying to get to mainland Greece.
Appealing for “our brothers who are departing and are not returning”, he went to the main refugee camp on Lesbos and ordered special prayers there.
Huge sea waves, winds and heavy rain kept him away on Monday.
The Pope spent a few hours on the island in a rare visit, spending time with refugees, thanking locals for their hospitality and expressing sadness that locals’ houses were “heavily damaged”.
The Archdiocese of Crete said that since his arrival, the Italian police were using “moderately strong water jets to prevent overcrowding on the boats” being carried by the migrants.
Pope Francis has faced criticism at home over his lack of language on the refugee crisis.
“He never used the word refugee,” Matthew Schmitz, an Austrian spokesman for the Catholic Anti-Racism group Europa Nostra, told AFP.
“And he hasn’t even said the word migration. Refugees are people who are escaping war and, thanks to him, are fleeing to death,” said Schmitz.
Analysts have questioned his “open arms” approach, saying he was careful not to alienate allies in the United States and elsewhere.
Pope Francis said he was being “inarticulate” and called on priests and nuns to “speak out more plainly”.
“When I speak with people and they want to get answers about asylum, I say ‘Why don’t you go to your country and let those in your country handle this’,” he said.
In April, the Pontiff received 600 Jewish families who fled from Nazi-occupied Rome, including Holocaust survivors, and caused some criticism for not signing a document.
“He is promoting homogeneity and Catholic-Jewish relations, but he doesn’t want to upset those who support him. He’s the pope, for better or worse,” said Roland Kobia, researcher at the Catholic Observatory on Judaism and Islam.
The Pope visits Aleppo in northern Syria on Tuesday and takes his trip to Africa to Kenya on Wednesday.
Topics: world-politics, immigration, religion-and-beliefs, religion-and-beliefs, holy-see-vatican-city-state, greece, germany, italy