Pope Francis blamed nationalist divisions in the EU on Saturday for the lack of coordination on migration matters when he began a historic trip to Greece, with the aim of improving the complicated relations with the country’s Orthodox Church.
Francis said Europe was “torn by nationalist egotism” on migration during a meeting with EU Vice President Margaritis Schinas, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, among other officials.
The European community “continues to compromise” and “appears at times blocked and uncoordinated” instead of being a “motor of solidarity” on migration, the Pope said.
The 84-year visit to the Greek capital is the first by a pope since John Paul II in 2001, which in turn was the first papal visit to Athens since the 1054 schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Meeting with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos II, Francis emphasized the “common roots” of the two churches and followed John Paul II in asking for forgiveness “for the mistakes made by many Catholics.”
“We must continue this dialogue in truth and love,” Ieronymos had said earlier.
Speaking to members of Greece’s small Catholic community, who make up just 1.2 percent of the majority Orthodox population, Francis urged them not to lose faith.
“Being a minority … does not mean being insignificant,” he said.
Return to Lesbos
Francis has long advocated for refugees and will return to the island of Lesbos on Sunday, which he last visited in 2016 during the early years of the migration crisis.
Flying after a two-day trip to Cyprus, the pope landed shortly after 0900 GMT in the Greek capital, where security was increased by expected protests from hard-line Orthodox, among whom anti-papal sentiment remains strong.
Up to 2,000 police officers are deployed in Athens to monitor possible disruptions by hard-line Orthodox, who blame Catholics for the Schism and sacking of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade.
The reciprocal excommunications exchanged between the two churches after the Schism were not lifted until 1965.
The authorities have banned protests in central Athens.
Outside the archdiocese offices where Francis was meeting with Ieronymos, the police escorted an elderly Greek priest who called the pope a “heretic.”
Relations with the Church of Greece are much better than they were before John Paul II’s visit, Pierre Salembier, head of the Jesuit Catholic community in Greece, told AFP.
But he said there were still some “known anti-Catholic fanatics” within the governing body of the Church.
The bishop of Piraeus called the Pope’s visit “immoral,” according to the Orthodox journalists’ union.
Francis flies back to Rome on Monday.
‘The open arms’
During his visit to Cyprus, Francis condemned “slavery” and “torture” in migrant camps, drawing parallels with World War II.
The Cyprus government said on Friday that 50 migrants, including two Cameroonians trapped for months in the buffer zone of the divided island, will be relocated to Italy thanks to Francisco.
On Sunday, the Pope will revisit Lesbos in Greece, a high point of the 2015 refugee crisis and subsequently “as a pilgrim to the sources of humanity” to call for the integration of refugees.
The sprawling Moria migrant camp, which the pontiff visited in 2016, burned down last year and has been replaced by the temporary Mavrovouni facility.
I would like to promote a community vision on the migration issue, which caters to the most needy, so that, in proportion to the media in each country, they are welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated, respecting their human condition. rights and dignity.
– Pope Francis (@Pontifex) December 4, 2021
With EU funding, Greece is building a series of “closed” facilities on the Greek islands with barbed wire fences, surveillance cameras, X-ray scanners and magnetic gates that close at night.
NGOs and aid groups have expressed concern about the new camps, arguing that movements of people should not be restricted.
Thirty-six groups active in Greece this week wrote to Francis raising the plight of people in the camps and requesting his help in stopping the illegal rejections of migrants allegedly by Greek border agents.
Greece vehemently denies the claims, insisting that its coast guard saves lives at sea.
Addressing Francis on Saturday, President Sakellaropoulou insisted that Athens “is making every effort to prevent the illegal trafficking of people and their political exploitation.”
The pontiff is expected to visit the camp and meet two families “chosen at random,” an official said.
“We await you with open arms,” said Berthe, a Cameroonian asylum seeker at the camp.
He said he hoped the Pope “would pray for us to help us overcome the insecurities we have experienced, through faith.”
On Wednesday, about 30 asylum seekers landed near the camp. On Friday, two migrants were killed when a speedboat capsized near the Greek island of Kos.