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Pope Francis To Show Solidarity With Migrants In Lesbos Visit


Pope Francis is going to the Greek island of Lesbos tomorrow to support the migrants waiting there and the people who have been helping them. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports the pope has criticized the European Union for shutting its doors to refugees.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The Vatican says the pope's half-day visit is humanitarian in nature, not political. But spokesman Father Federico Lombardi acknowledges that Francis has in the past told Europe it has a moral obligation to welcome refugees. It's evident, Lombardi added, that the humanitarian crisis exists only because political solutions have not been found for regional conflicts.

It wasn't long after his election in 2013 that Pope Francis showed he was putting the poor and dispossessed at the center of his papacy. His first-ever papal trip out of Rome was to the Italian island Lampedusa.


POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: It was then the major gateway to Europe for hundreds of thousands of migrants making the perilous Mediterranean crossing from North Africa. It's there Francis attacked what he called the globalization of indifference toward refugees and migrants. And last January, the pope marked the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, urging them not to allow themselves to be robbed of the hope and joy of living.


POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Dear migrants and refugees, each one of you carries within yourself a story, a culture of precious value and often, unfortunately, experiences of misery, oppression and fear.

POGGIOLI: The half-day visit to Lesbos was organized on very short notice after the European Union signed a controversial deal with Turkey late last month that calls for newly-arrived migrants and refugees in Greece to be deported back to Turkey unless they obtain asylum in Greece.

The pope will be accompanied by the Orthodox spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos II, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church. Both have been as outspoken as Francis on the refugee crisis. Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants voices the Vatican's sharp criticism of the EU-Turkey deal as a violation of humanitarian law.


ANTONIO MARIA VEGLIO: (Through interpreter) Europe has handled this crisis like Pontius Pilate - washing its hands, sending migrants back to Turkey. It treats migrants like damaged goods that must be returned to sender.

POGGIOLI: Political analyst and Vatican-watcher Massimo Franco says the pope's visit to Lesbos is the latest example of Pope Francis playing an increasingly assertive role on the world stage. Franco says Francis believes that Eurocentrism is a thing of the past and the West is in the grips of a deep crisis.

MASSIMO FRANCO: He views immigration as one of the typical consequences of this end of the Cold War and of the post-Cold War world. So he's trying to say listen, we are facing a brand-new phenomenon. Let's try to deal with it in a more intelligent and long-sighted way.

POGGIOLI: On Lesbos, Francis and the two Orthodox religious leaders will visit a refugee camp that's been turned into a virtual detention center for people being deported. They will also meet residents and hold a prayer service for the many migrants who have drowned trying to reach Europe. The interfaith nature of the visit is a sign of an increasingly unified voice among two major Christian religions on issues that go beyond religion and embrace global humanitarian crises. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.