Migrants wept at his feet, kissed his hand and begged for Pope Francis’s help on Saturday at a Greek refugee camp on the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis which has claimed hundreds of lives in the past year.
At a sprawling fenced complex on the Aegean island of Lesbos, adults and children broke down in tears, pleading for help after their onward journey to Europe was cut short by an EU decision to seal off a migrant route used by a million people fleeing conflict since early 2015.
Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, shook hands with hundreds of people as hundreds more were penned behind metal barriers at the Moria camp, which holds some 3,000 people.
“Freedom, freedom,” migrants chanted as the pope walked through the hillside facility in scorching sun. Some women ululated.
Earlier, Greek state TV reported Francis was planning to take ten refugees back with him to the Vatican, eight of them Syrians. Their names were taken from a lot this week.
“This is a gift from God,” state broadcaster ERT quoted a woman called Nour as saying.
A Vatican spokesman said he had no immediate comment on the TV report, suggesting reporters “should follow the day’s events as they unfold.”
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
“I want to tell you, you are not alone,” Francis said in a scripted speech. “… As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. Do not lose hope!” he said, flanked by Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Greek Archbishop Ieronymos.
On at least three occasions, adults fell to the feet of the pontiff, weeping and begging for help. One woman wearing a crucifix broke through a police cordon and flung herself at Francis’s feet.
“No camp, no camp,” the woman, who appeared to be in her early thirties, sobbed. “I want to go.”
In a tent where Francis met with migrants, a little girl with pigtails dressed in pink and white bowed at his feet. An adult man broke down. Migrants slipped pieces of paper into his hand as Francis passed by, which he handed to an aide.
The pope has often defended refugees and urged Catholic parishes in Europe to host them. His first trip after becoming pontiff in 2013 was to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which, like Lesbos, has received thousands of refugees.
Hundreds of people have died making the short but precarious crossing from Turkey to the Lesbos shores in inflatable dinghies in the past year, and the island is full of unmarked graves.
“This is a trip that is a bit different than the others … this is a trip marked by sadness,” Francis told reporters on the plane taking him to Lesbos.
“We are going to encounter the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War Two. We will see many people who are suffering, who don’t know where to go, who had to flee.
We are also going to a cemetery, the sea. So many people died there … this is what is in my heart as I make this trip.”
Aid organizations have described conditions at Moria, a disused army camp, as appalling.
“This is like Guantanamo. We just want to leave,” said Ahmed, a 29 year old from Mosul in Iraq.
Journalists normally have no access to the facility on a hillside just outside Lesbos’s main town of Mytiline, but aid workers said walls were whitewashed, a sewer system fixed and several dozen migrants at the overcrowded facility were transferred to another camp, which the pope will not visit.