Pope Francis has likened the treatment of migrants to those imprisoned in Nazi or Soviet camps as he sought to “awaken the conscience” of the world to the plight of refugees fleeing their homeland in search of a better life.
Speaking during a meeting with migrants in Cyprus, Francis said he had a responsibility to highlight the suffering of refugees, with thousands of them held in camps in North Africa and Europe. In detention centres in Libya, where migrants are forcibly returned after being expelled from Europe, those incarcerated face torture, rape and murder.
“We complain when we read the stories of the concentration camps of the last century, those of the Nazis, those of Stalin, we complain when we see this and we say: ‘but why did this happen?’”, the Pope said during an ecumenical prayer gathering at the Holy Cross Church, Nicosia. “Brothers and sisters: it is happening today, in the neighbouring shores! Places of slavery.”
Francis has made the defence of migrants a cornerstone of his pontificate ever since he made a dramatic and moving first pastoral visit outside of Rome in July 2013 to the Island of Lampedusa. He did so after reading news reports about people drowning in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach Europe.
The 84-year-old Pope, whose father emigrated from Italy to Argentina in the 1920s, made his latest remarks on migrants at the end of a two-day visit to Cyprus and before heading to Greece, and they are some of the strongest comments he has made on the crisis. While in Greece, Francis is due to make his second visit to the island of Lesbos and on Sunday 5 December will visit the refugee centre in Mytilene. This centre replaces the Moira camp, which was burned down in a fire, and where conditions were so squalid that it was known as the “shame of Europe.”
The Vatican also confirmed that the Pope, through the Sant’Egidio Community, a Catholic justice and peace movement, had arranged to bring 12 asylum-seekers from Cyprus to Italy in the coming weeks. Reports had earlier suggested that 50 would be transferred, and it’s possible that more will come through the “humanitarian corridors” that Sant’Egidio has established in the past.
In 2016, after his first visit to Lesbos, the Pope brought back three Syrian refugee families on the papal plane. One of those on board was Nour Essa, who had fled Damascus with her husband, Hassan, and their then two-year-old son, Riad. She is now a biologist at the Bambino Gesu children’s hospital, while her husband works as an architect.
During the meeting in Nicosia, the Pope listened to the stories of migrants including Maccolins, a young man from Cameroon, who described himself as “someone wounded by hate,” and Mariamie, a young woman from DR Congo, who said she dreams of a world “where no one is forced to fight, to do battle, give up, flee or cry, except maybe for joy.”
Responding to their testimonies, Francis said that indifference to the plight of migrants was “a very serious disease” and the “worst thing” is that people are getting used to reading stories of drownings after migrants’ boats sink.
“Forced migration is not a quasi-tourist habit: please,” the Pope said, adding that “one who comes to ask for freedom, bread, help, brotherhood, joy, who is fleeing from hatred” is so often faced with hatred.
“May the Lord awaken the conscience of all of us in the face of these things,” Francis added.
The Pope’s remarks in full can be found here: https://www.vatican.va/