Pope Francis has taken 12 Syrians, all of them Muslim, back with him to the Vatican after his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos to highlight the plight of thousands of people seeking to reach Western Europe from Turkey.
The three families, including six children, met Francis on the tarmac and boarded his plane following his five-hour trip to the island on the frontline of the ongoing refugee crisis.
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In a statement on Saturday, the Vatican said the pontiff wanted to “make a gesture of welcome” to the refugees, who were in camps on the island before the controversial agreement between the European Union and Ankara to deport all “irregular migrants” to Turkey came into effect on March 20.
The Vatican said the three families, two of them hailing from the Syrian capital of Damascus and one from Deir az-Zor, had all fled their homes after they were bombed.
They were selected in a lottery-type process.
“Going back to the Vatican with 12 refugees – people who perhaps would have been sent back to Turkey otherwise – definitely sends not just a message of solidarity, but certainly a nudge towards Europe’s politicians to do something for the many people who’ve been here for weeks and months,” Al Jazeera’s Nadim Baba, reporting from Lesbos, said.
‘We are all migrants’
Thousands of people are trapped at the camp, waiting to hear whether they will get asylum or they will deported back to Turkey.
“May we … recognise that together, as one human family, we are all migrants,” the pope said in a prayer in memory to the hundreds of people of all ages who died in the Aegean while trying to reach Western Europe.
Francis said that he wanted the refugees to know they are “not alone” and implored European leaders to come to their aid in a spirit of fraternity and solidarity.
“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,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Baba said Francis spent a lot of time with the people stuck in the Moria camp, talking to them and “hearing how desperate they were to get some answers; to be given some hope whether they will be allowed to settle in Greece or elsewhere in the European Union.
“He expressed a lot of sympathy with the people for the hardship that they are experiencing.”
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants have arrived in Lesbos in recent months on flimsy boats, while hundreds have died on the way.
The EU-Turkey deal as well as the processing centre have been criticised by rights groups, who claim refugees in Lesbos have been treated in a way that breaches basic human rights.
The Vatican insisted Francis’ visit to Lesbos was purely humanitarian and religious in nature, not political or a “direct” criticism of the EU plan.