Pope Plucks 12 Refugees to Safety From Lesbos Camp

A little girl, her mother in an Islamic veil, knelt and bowed at his feet, before the Pope lifted her up delicately.

Published: 17th April 2016 09:38 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th April 2016 09:38 AM   |  A+A-

Pope Francis1_AP

Pope Francis meets migrants at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. |AP

THE Pope transformed the lives of a dozen Syrian refugees yesterday (Saturday), plucking them from a crowded camp on Lesbos and flying them to Rome.

Within hours the six adults and six children, apparently chosen at random, had swapped a closed island facility for a new life on continental Europe, and all the help the Holy See can provide.

Pope Francis's dramatic gesture in an intensely emotional visit to the Greek isle was intended as a pointed signal to Europe. But aid workers noted he had left behind 3,000 refugees in the camp, with another 53,000 migrants elsewhere in Greece.

He had rued the fate of those who have drowned on the perilous journey across the Aegean from Turkey, describing en route to Lesbos how the sea had become the "cemetery" for the "worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War".

Arriving on the island, Pope Francis was driven to Moria camp. Journalists are usually barred from the former army barracks, where careful preparations had been made for his visit.

Suddenly walls were repainted, the sewerage system repaired and several dozen refugees quietly dispatched to another camp - which the Pope did not visit - to ease the overcrowding.

Once inside Moria, the feted visitor and his entourage of bearded Greek Orthodox priests - a rare show of unity among rival Churches - received a tumultuous welcome. Tearful mothers and bewildered children gathered to shake and kiss his hands. One middle-aged man was so overcome 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 called himself a Pakistani Christian, clutched at the pontiff'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, her mother in an Islamic veil, knelt and bowed at his feet, before the Pope lifted her up delicately.

As he moved among the refugees, children handed him colourful drawings, including one from an Afghan boy wearing a green t-shirt and with plastic sunglasses balanced on his head.

Pope Francis accepted every gesture gracefully; when handed a painting by a little girl, he passed the gift to his aides, sternly instructing them "not to bend" it because he wanted the artwork "for his desk" in the Vatican.

He addressed the 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." The message that Europe should accept more refugees was echoed in Britain by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, hinting at a concerted campaign by the Catholic Church.

"There is this willingness in the hearts of people to respond, but the mechanisms are very difficult," he told the BBC.

"I understand our government's motivation in wanting to bring people directly from Syrian refugee camps and to deter them from making these hazardous journeys, but in the first months of this programme, Britain has received just under 2,000 refugees."

Cardinal Nichols added: "I believe there is a greater willingness in this country to respond."

As the Pope left Lesbos, Vatican aides 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," said a statement from the Vatican. Once in the Italian capital, the refugees will be supported by the Holy See and cared for 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 are likely to be sent back to Turkey. The main goal of the scheme is to deter migrants from the dangerous sea route, 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 pointed out that arrivals in Europe have steadily diminished since the deal with Turkey came into effect. Last month, 25,000 refugees entered EU member states, compared with 57,000 in February.

On his way to Lesbos, the Pope had told journalists he was embarking on a "voyage by sadness", adding: "We will witness the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War."

As his plane flew over the Aegean, he said: "And we are also going to a cemetery: the sea. So many people never arrived."

By bleak coincidence, a dinghy carrying 41 Syrian and Iraqi refugees was intercepted off Lesbos a few hours before his arrival. They were brought ashore and immediately detained.


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