VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis arrived in Cyprus on Thursday to draw attention to the fate of migrants at Europe’s borders and the disconnect between his evangelical call to countries to receive and integrate them and the governments of first line that they have less and less willingness or capacity to let them in.
Cyprus, an island nation in the eastern Mediterranean, has seen such a large increase in migrant arrivals – which in the first 10 months of the year exceeded by 38% those of the same period of 2020 – that it has asked the European Commission to allow to stop processing your asylum applications.
Francis is expected to address the issue of immigration – and the division of Cyprus for almost half a century – upon his arrival in the capital, Nicosia, on Thursday on the first leg of a five-day trip. He will also visit Lesbos, where in 2016 he made headlines by taking a dozen Syrians who lived in a camp on the Greek island back to Italy with him.
Upon his arrival, the pope was greeted by the Speaker of Parliament Annita Demetriou, the first woman to hold the post. He stopped to speak with about 30 Cypriot Catholic children with little flags flanking the red carpet and chanting “we love you” and “welcome to Cyprus.”
In a demonstration of the importance of migrants on this trip, Francis met with a group of asylum seekers at the Vatican and another near the Rome airport before heading to Cyprus. According to the Vatican, some were in the group that returned with him from Lesbos five years ago.
The pope is organizing a similar operation for this occasion: in Cyprus about 50 migrants have been identified for transfer to Italy, although they will not travel with the pontiff, but will be relocated in the coming weeks, the Cypriot authorities explained. The Vatican did not rule out that the same could happen on Lesbos.
“It was like a gift,” said Malak Abo, one of the Syrians who went to Italy with the pope in 2016. Now, Abo works at a donation center run by the Catholic NGO Sant’Egidio in Rome, which helped facilitate his transfer then.
In Nicosia, Francisco will immediately face the reality of the island’s ethnic division, which also contributes to stoking the migratory flow. The pope will be staying at the Vatican nunciature, which is in the United Nations-controlled exclusion zone that divides the island between the Greek Cypriot south and the Turkish Cypriot north.
Francis has made the situation of migrants one of the hallmarks of his papacy. His first official trip outside of Rome was to Lampedusa, the island that ships from Libya often land on. Since then, he has prayed on the US-Mexico border, visited a refugee camp in Bethlehem and met with Rohingya Muslims who had to flee Myanmar to Bangladesh.
In a message earlier this week on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the pope insisted that refugees are people who deserve dignity and denounced the exploitation of their despair, a message he has repeated in relation to the tension on the border between the European Union and Belarus.
“The migration debate is not really about migrants,” Francisco noted. “Even more regrettable is the fact that migrants are increasingly used as bargaining chips, like pawns on a chessboard, victims of rivalries. policies “.
Francis will also meet with Orthodox leaders in both Cyprus and Greece, as well as with the small Catholic communities of both nations.
Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus.