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Pope Francis Meets Migrants In Lesbos, Returns To Rome With 12 On His Plane


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'll begin the program today with news about Pope Francis and his visit to Greece, which is on the frontlines of Europe's migrant crisis. The pope went to the island of Lesbos and created a surprise. He met migrants at a camp on the island and returned to Rome with 12 Syrian Muslims on his plane. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us now from Lesbos, where she's been reporting on the pope's visit. Sylvia, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Who are the 12 people that the pope has taken back to Rome with him?

POGGIOLI: Well the Vatican statement said that they're members of three families, and they include six children. Two of the families are from Damascus and one is from an area under ISIS control. The agreement allowing them to leave was worked out by the Vatican and Greek and Italian authorities, so it was probably in the works for at least a few days. It wasn't spur of the moment. Now, all 12 of these people had been on the island of Lesbos from before March 20th. That's the day a controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey went into affect. That deal stipulates that anyone arriving in Greece after March 20 will be deported back to Turkey unless they succeed in obtaining asylum in Greece. So technically the Vatican has not violated that deal. But nevertheless, the pope's gesture stands as a sharp rebuke to European countries that are shutting their doors to refugees and migrants. And on the flight back to Rome, Francis told reporters this had been a very emotional day for him. He felt like crying.

MARTIN: Did the Vatican indicate where the families will live, what they will do, how will they - will be cared for?

POGGIOLI: The Vatican will be responsible for them, but the initial hospitality will be handled by this community - it's called the Sant'Egidio Community, which has been very active in promoting what they call humanitarian visas for refugees and has a long experience with conflict resolution and helping - assisting refugees and migrants.

MARTIN: So let's go back a little bit, Sylvia, if you don't mind, and tell us a little bit more about the background to this visit to Lesbos and how it came about.

POGGIOLI: Well it was organized on very short notice. The pope came at the invitation of Orthodox religious leaders. The Orthodox and the Vatican had strongly criticized the EU deal with Turkey. On the flight to Lesbos, the pope said he was going to witness firsthand what he called the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. And this is what he told a group of some 250 refugees at the main detention center on the island.


POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution. We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and, indeed, desperate need and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.

MARTIN: So on the flight back, the pope said that the decision is a purely humanitarian gesture. But do you think that there is actually more to it than that?

POGGIOLI: Well, it certainly has a political implication. Pope Francis has shown he's not afraid to be provocative on immigration issues. On his very first papal trip in 2013, he traveled to what was then the migrant crisis frontline. That was the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he denounced what he called the globalization of indifference toward migrants and refugees. Last February, at the Mexican border with the U.S., again, he spoke out in favor of migrants.

And this is what he said today, as he thanked the Greek people and the residents of Lesbos for welcoming and helping shelter refugees - Francis said, the worries expressed by institutions and people, both in Greece and in other European countries, are understandable and legitimate. We must never forget, he said, however, that migrants, rather than simply being a statistic, are first of all persons who have names, faces and individual stories.

MARTIN: And the Pope did not make this visit by himself, correct, Sylvia? There was a religious and kind of interfaith dimension as well. Can you talk a little bit about that?

POGGIOLI: He was accompanied by the - a spiritual leader of the Orthodox, Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Ieronymous. The event was a sign of how much progress there's been between Western and Eastern branches of Christianity that split nearly 1,000 years ago. And he has - last February, he succeeded in Havana, becoming the first pope ever to meet the Russian Orthodox patriarch, with whom he found common ground on the plight of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere. It's too soon to say whether the Catholic and Orthodox churches will resolve their centuries-old theological differences, but it's clear that on contemporary global issues, the two churches are speaking more and more with a unified voice.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli on the island of Lesbos, reporting on the visit of Pope Francis and two Orthodox leaders there. Sylvia thanks so much for joining us.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Michel. 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.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.