MYTILENE, Greece:Pope Francis on Saturday took three refugee families back with him on his plane to Rome following an emotional and provocative visit to the Greek island of Lesbos that seemed designed to prick Europe’s conscience over its treatment of refugees.
The pope boarded his Alitalia jet along with 12 Syrians from three families, all of whom had had their houses bombed and are seeking refuge in Europe, according to Vatican spokesman the Rev. Thomas Rosica. There were six children among them. Rosica said the families would be cared for at the Vatican.
The dramatic gesture by the pope came at the end of a highly symbolic visit to Lesbos, an island that has been the first port of call for hundreds of thousands of people seeking sanctuary in Europe over the past year as they fled war, oppression and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But in the past two weeks, it also has been the scene of hundreds of deportations under a new plan by which Europe sends back those who reach its shores.
The centerpiece of Francis’s five-hour visit Saturday was a visit to the Moria detention facility, where he sat down for lunch with some of the 3,060 men, women and children who arrived on this sun-splashed beach of Europe harboring a dream that was shattered almost as soon as they made landfall. By crossing the barbed-wire threshold that walls the residents of Moria off from the world, the pope presented European leaders with an unmistakable moral challenge.
As Francis made his way through the facility, several people knelt at his feet, weeping uncontrollably.