Pope Francis paid Saturday an emotional visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, one of the flashpoints in Europe's migration crisis, and offered shelter to 12 Syrians who boarded his plane back to Rome.
"The Pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees, accompanying on his plane to Rome three families of refugees from Syria, 12 people in all, including six children," the Vatican said in a statement.
All are Muslims and had their homes bombed. The children's ages ranged between two and 17. Two families come from the capital Damascus and one from Deir Azzor province, which is controlled by Islamic State militants, the Vatican said.
On the return flight, Francis said his move was suggested by an aide last week, and was not an implicit criticism of the recent migrant-swap deal between the European Union and Turkey. "There is no political speculation behind it," he said.
Citing Mother Teresa, the pope said his act of generosity was "a drop in the sea, but after this drop the sea will not be the same." He also said he understood public fears about migration and urged Europe to focus on integration, jobs and growth.
Humanitarian groups are outraged about the EU-Turkey deal, as it seriously restricts the right of newly arrived migrants to Greece to apply for asylum. Instead, they are to be returned to Turkey - and from there, only Syrians are given a chance to be relocated to the EU.
In Lesbos, Francis visited the Moria facility, one of the controversial "hotspot" centres financed by the EU, which separates migrants with asylum rights from others who are to be repatriated, and is considered a prison by human rights activists.
"Today I wanted to be with you. I want to tell you that you are not alone," the pope told migrants.
Accompanied by two senior Orhodox church leaders, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos, Francis greeted individually hundreds of people inside Moria.
The three men were confronted with children, elderly people in wheelchairs and women in tears; one knelt and wailed before the pope. Before they made their speeches, a chant of "freedom, freedom," rang in the air.
The religious leaders 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.
The pontiff is an outspoken champion of the destitute. Flying out to Lesbos, he compared the plight of migrants around the world to "the biggest humanitarian catastrophe after World War II" and said he was embarking on a "sad journey."
After sitting down for lunch with some 250 asylum seekers at 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 desperate sea journeys.
In a short speech, Francis said walls are no answer to Europe's migration crisis, and identified fighting arms 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, where he spent only five hours, Francis was greeted by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who heard the pontiff praise the Greeks' "human stance" towards migrants "despite harsh economic strains," the Vatican said in a statement.
Francis' trip to Lesbos, marking his 13th international journey, evoked comparisons with his 2013 foray to the Italian island of Lampedusa, another landing point for migrants bound for Europe which was the pope's first-ever trip outside the Vatican.
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