Pope Francis took advantage of a trip to Greece to denounce Europe for the divisions it has manifested over migration while warning of the dangers of populism.
In Athens, during the second leg of a Mediterranean tour that highlighted the plight of migrants and refugees, the pontiff also expressed his concern at the decline of democracy in the world. Greece has long been on the front lines of the refugee crisis.
“The European community, torn by nationalist interests rather than being the engine of solidarity, sometimes appears blocked and uncoordinated,” he said on Saturday in a speech at the Greek presidential palace.
“In the past, ideological conflicts prevented the building of bridges between Eastern and Western Europe; today, the issue of migration has also led to disruptions between the south and the north.
The Roman Catholic leader, himself the son and grandson of impoverished Italians who moved to Argentina, made the defense of migrants a cornerstone of his papacy.
In Cyprus, the first stop on a five-day trip, the pope, who turns 85 this month and now walks with a noticeable limp, condemned what he often called “slavery” and “torture” suffered by those fleeing war and poverty.
“It reminds us of the story of the last century, of the Nazis, of Stalin,” he said during a prayer service on Friday organized for migrants gathered in Nicosia, the capital of the war-divided island. . “And we wonder how this could have happened. “
But Francis, who organized the relocation of 50 asylum seekers from Cyprus to Rome, reserved his harsh language for the Greek end of his tour.
Citing Athens not only as the cradle of democracy, but where “man first became aware of being” a political animal “, he expressed his fears about the disenchantment of being attracted to what he has. called the siren songs of authoritarianism and warned of populists promising popular but unrealistic solutions. .
“We cannot avoid seeing with concern that today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a decline in democracy,” he said in a speech which avoided naming nations or individual leaders. “Democracy requires the participation and involvement of all… it is complex, while authoritarianism is peremptory and the easy responses of populism seem appealing.
At the southern ends of Europe, Cyprus and Greece have toughened their migration policies in response to an influx of people fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
In Greece, the strengthening of security at the land and sea borders with Turkey has led to a dramatic drop in arrivals. But Cyprus, further east, has seen a sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers. Officials from the internationally recognized Greek-led south accuse the separatist Turkey-occupied north of allowing migrants to cross the ceasefire line that has divided the country since the invasion of Ankara in response to a coup d’état aimed at union with Greece in 1974.
As the EU tightens border controls more generally and pushes back to keep migrants at bay, Pope Francis has served as a moral compass on the issue.
In Nicosia on Friday, he said he had a responsibility to speak out and tell the truth about the suffering of the refugees.
Earlier on Saturday, Greek Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris confirmed that 14 of the 50 asylum seekers to be transferred to Italy would leave the island on December 16, including two Cameroonian students stranded since May in the buffer zone of the island monitored by the UN.
Like Greece and other southern EU member states, Cyprus has complained that it has been forced to take disproportionate responsibility for managing mass migration to the bloc. Nouris said the pope’s gesture was more than symbolic. ” [It] clearly shows solidarity in practice, ”he told reporters after a farewell ceremony for the religious leader. “This is the basic solidarity that we are looking for from our European partners.
On Sunday, in a rehearsal of his poignant visit to Lesvos in 2016, François will fly to the Aegean island to hear the testimonies of migrant men and women who have reached its shores.
Five years ago, he stunned the European political elite by rescuing 12 refugees apparently doomed to live in appalling conditions in an overcrowded camp on Lesvos by bringing them back with him on his plane.
Asylum seekers are now housed in a temporary reception center after a series of fires destroyed the sordid Moria settlement.
For a Catholic leader who likes to surprise, it is not impossible that he could repeat the blow.
“There could be a spontaneous decision,” said Father George Dagas, pastor of the Catholic cathedral in the Greek capital. “The Holy Father wants a better future for all these people. Who knows? It could happen again.