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Pope, Orthodox leaders listen to cries of refugees, urge help

16 Apr 2016 – By Cindy Wooden

MYTILENE, Greece (CNS) — Although their speeches were punctuated with policy appeals, Pope Francis and Orthodox leaders focused their visit to the island of Lesbos on the faces, stories and drawings of refugees.

Pope Francis, Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and all Greece spent more time April 16 greeting the refugees individually than they did giving speeches.

The children received a pat on the head and the men a handshake. In respect for the Muslim faith of most of the women, the leaders put their hands over their hearts and bowed in greeting them. The gratitude of those men, women and children was clear in their smiles, tears and sobbing pleas for help.

An Iraqi woman asked for the assistance of the pope and patriarch in finding medical care for her daughter with bone cancer. Another woman kept saying, in English, “We are very tired here.” A man told the pope that he had a brother and sister in Canada and was trying to join them. Another man pleaded with Pope Francis, “Please, father, bless me. Father, please, bless me.”

Pope Francis went to Lesbos expecting those stories. On the flight from Rome, he told reporters, “This is a trip marked by sadness and that’s important. It’s a sad trip. We are going to meet so many people who suffer, who don’t know where to go, who were forced to flee, and we are also going to a cemetery — the sea, where so many have drowned.”

“We are going to encounter the greatest human catastrophe since World War II,” he said.

The pope asked reporters to make a special effort to share with their readers and listeners “what is in my heart.”

After briefly greeting each other at Lesbos’ Mytilene airport, the pope and Orthodox leaders rode together in a minibus to the Moria refugee camp, a facility that a year ago was an open center when migrants and refugees could file requests for asylum.

Today it is a locked facility surrounded by walls topped with razor wire where some 2,500 newcomers wait out the slow process of discovering whether their asylum requests will be accepted or they will be put on a ferry and taken back to Turkey. Most of the refugees are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and set sail for Greece in inflatable boats from the nearby Turkish coast.

Archbishop Ieronymos, speaking at the refugee camp, said he hoped to never again “see children washing up on the shores of the Aegean.”

The Orthodox archbishop spoke with pride of the Greek people who have opened their hearts and even their homes to the refugees, despite years of serious economic trouble and a government almost crippled by austerity measures.

But Archbishop Ieronymos was not so appreciative of the European Union and the international community, which continue to pledge help in dealing with the massive influx of refugees, but also have closed more and more of their borders.

“Only those who see the eyes of those small children that we met at the refugee camps will be able to immediately recognize in its entirety the ‘bankruptcy’ of humanity and solidarity that Europe has shown these last few years,” he said. For Patriarch Bartholomew, the visit to the camp was summarized as solidarity in tears.

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