The Pope speaking to refugees and JRS staff and friends on the topic of education for refugees in November 2015. (PhotoVat)

Rome, 17 April 2016 – In his heartfelt visit to the Greek island of Lesbos yesterday, Pope Francis stood in solidarity with refugees and migrants, reminding them “you are not alone.” However, the Pope did not only draw attention to this grave tragedy through words, but through action. On his trip back to the Vatican, he brought with him a dozen Syrian Muslim refugees – including six children – personally showing the EU and the world the values of welcome and accompaniment.

The Pope met with hundreds of refugees and migrants at the Moria detention centre, a place notorious for holding refugees – including children – in poor and inhumane conditions. There, he told the people present, “do not lose hope.” As tens of thousands of people are now stuck in camps, detention centres and elsewhere in Greece, and many more facing deportation to Turkey with the recent controversial EU deal, the Pope reminded us “before they are numbers, refugees are first and foremost human beings.” 

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) echoes the Pope’s commitment to accompanying the individual person and upholding human dignity.

“Accompaniment is not only a way of eliciting hope, but also a way of offering protection; it affirms that God is present in human history, even in its most tragic episodes. We are not side-tracked by political manoeuvrings or ethnic divisions, whether among refugees or among the agencies and governments that decide their fate. Through his words and actions, the Pope shows us that as free people, we can willingly and faithfully choose to be with people who are – at least temporarily – not free,” said Jesuit Refugee Service International Director Fr Thomas H Smolich SJ.

Pope Francis visited the centre together with the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church Bartholomew I and Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos II, demonstrating a commitment to ecumenical work. The joint trip was an olive branch gesture between the eastern and western Christianity. Together, they held a service to bless and commemorate those who have died on the dangerous journey to Europe. 

JRS, with centres in both Athens and Lesbos, serves those most at-risk regardless of nationality or religious affiliation. “By meeting Orthodox leaders as well, Pope Francis is saying this is not just a Catholic concern, but a global one, requiring an international and interreligious response,” Fr Smolich indicates. 

The Vatican ensures that the Pope’s visit was humanitarian and spiritual in nature, as opposed to a political criticism of the recent EU-Turkey accord. However, together with Bartholomew I and Ieronymous II, Pope Francis signed a declaration encouraging the international community to provide protection and temporary asylum for people in need. 

“We will all be accountable for the way we respond to the crisis and conflict in the regions where you come from. The Mediterranean Sea should not be a tomb,” Bartholomew I said.

On his return to Rome, the Pope said, “building walls is not a solution. We saw walls during the last century and they did not resolve anything. We must build bridges. Bridges are built with intelligence, with dialogue, with integration.” 

Pope Francis has long been an outspoken advocate for refugees. He has encouraged religious communities and average citizens to welcome refugees into their homes. He has washed the feet of Christian and Muslim refugees alike. On his first visit outside of Rome in 2013 to the island of Lampedusa, where thousands of refugees and migrants have arrived and many more have died trying to reach safety, he condemned the “globalisation of indifference.” 

In his speech for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in January, Pope Francis said “we can no longer take the suffering of others for granted.” 

JRS hopes that this historic trip will push citizens to embrace attitudes of welcome and leaders to enforce policies of protection. As he said yesterday, “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.”

--Jacquelyn Pavilon, JRS International Communications Coordinator

The Jesuit Refugee Service in Greece

JRS Greece is present in Athens, with a smaller presence in Lesbos, providing emergency assistance. In Athens, JRS runs a shelter for newly arrived or homeless refugees as well as an integration centre. JRS Greece cooperates with the UN refugee agency, the ecumenical group "Churches Together", the Anglican Church, the Salvation Army, and other religious organisations including the Orthodox organisation APOSTOLI, to visit and provide food, clothes and other basic necessities to refugees in camps, prisons, detention centres and other sites across Greece. 

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