Pope to take 10 refugees out of Lesbos, Greek television reports

Pope Francis began Saturday a five-hour visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, one of the flashpoints in Europe's migration crisis, where he was going to enter a refugee centre and meet volunteers dealing with the influx.

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.

According to Greek television reports, the pope was going to take back to the Vatican 10 migrants - eight Syrians and two Afghans - who are not covered by the controversial migrant swapping deal between the European Union and Turkey.

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, reports said.

The Vatican did not confirm the information.

"Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories, and need to be treated as such," Francis wrote on Twitter before departure. He also sent birthday wishes to his predecessor Benedict XVI, who turned 89 on Saturday.

On arrival, the pope was greeted by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and two Orthodox church leaders due to accompany him in Lesbos: Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronymos.

In private talks with Tsipras, Francis praised Greeks for their "human stance" towards migrants "despite harsh economic strains," and stressed the need for European and international solutions to the crisis, the Vatican said in a statement.

With Bartholomew and Ieronymos, the pontiff entered the Moria facility, one of the controversial "hotspot" migrant sorting centres backed by the EU that separates those with legitimate asylum claims from others who need to be repatriated.

The Moria facility, hosting thousands of people, is instrumental to the EU-Turkey deal, which humanitarian groups have strongly denounced. A Catholic volunteer at the site told Vatican Radio he hoped the pope would join in the criticism.

"I hope he may talk also perhaps about the injustice of the deportations,” Leonard Meachim, who works on the Greek island for the Caritas and Jesuit Refugee Services charity organization, said in a Friday interview.

After Moria, where they were due to make speeches, sign a joint declaration and have lunch with some 250 asylum seekers refugees, Francis, Bartholomew and Ieronymos were scheduled to meet about 5,000 people, including volunteers and locals, at Lesbos' port.

Each of the religious leaders were scheduled to make another round of speeches, each say prayers, observe a minute's silence and throw laurel wreaths in the sea to commemorate the migrants who have died on their risky journeys.

At least 732 migrants have died or have 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.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49
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