Pope Francis paid Saturday an emotional visit to a migrant sorting centre on the Greek island of Lesbos, telling people there that they are "not alone," amid reports that he was planning to fly 10 of them back to Rome.
The leader of the Catholic Church is an outspoken champion of migrant rights. In 2013, he picked the Italian island of Lampedusa, another landing point for migrants and refugees bound for Europe, as the destination for his first international trip.
"Today I wanted to be with you. I want to tell you that you are not alone," Francis said in a speech at the Moria camp, one of the controversial "hotspots" backed by the European Union that separates those with asylum rights from others who need to be repatriated.
Accompanied by two Orhodox church leaders, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos, the pope spoke to hundreds of people inside the facility, which humanitarian groups have compared to a prison.
The three men were confronted with children, elderly people in wheelchairs and women in tears; one knelt and wailed before the pope. Before they addressed the crowd, a chant of "freedom, freedom," rang in the air.
They signed a joint declaration calling for greater international efforts to solve the migration crisis, peace in the Middle East, and pledging greater efforts to heal the centuries-old division between the Orthodox and Catholic churches.
"World opinion cannot ignore the colossal humanitarian crisis created by the spread of violence and armed conflict, the persecution and displacement of religious and ethnic minorities, and the uprooting of families from their homes," the declaration said.
Francis was planning to take back with him 10 asylum seekers - eight Syrians and two Afghans - who are not covered by the controversial migrant swapping deal between the EU and Turkey, according to Greek state broadcaster ERT.
The Vatican did not confirm the information.
Under the EU-Turkey arrangement, migrants reaching Greek islands as of March 20 are to be sent back to Turkey. In return, the EU has pledged to take in Syrian refugees still in Turkey, up to a maximum of 72,000 people.
The migrants due to be taken off the island by the pope would not be covered by the agreement as they arrived in Lesbos before March 20, ERT said.
Before departure, Francis wrote on Twitter that "refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories, and need to be treated as such."
On the plane taking him to Lesbos, he compared Europe's migration crisis to "the biggest humanitarian catastrophe after World War II" and said he was embarking on a "sad journey." He also sent birthday wishes to his predecessor Benedict XVI, who turned 89 on Saturday.
After sitting down for lunch with some 250 asylum seekers inside the Moria camp, Francis, Bartholomew and Ieronymos boarded a minibus and reached Lesbos' port, to meet the local population and commemorate migrants who died on risky sea journeys.
In a short speech, Francis said walls are no answer to Europe's migration crisis, and identified fighting arm trade and trafficking "and the often hidden machinations associated with them" as part of the long-term solution.
Francis, Bartholomew and Ieronymos then recited separate prayers and threw laurel wreaths in the sea.
At least 732 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean so far this year as they tried to flee poverty and violence, including 375 on the sea stretch between Greece and Turkey, the International Organization for Migration said Friday.
Arriving in Lesbos, Francis was greeted by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, with whom the pontiff discussed the need for European and international engagement and praised Greek efforts "despite harsh economic strains," the Vatican said in a statement.
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