Pope Francis arrived in Lesbos on Wednesday on a weeklong visit to Europe, set to highlight the plight of migrants while lifting spirits of those affected by the impact of globalization and environmental change.
A sea of journalists, pilgrims and tourists greeted Francis on the heavily guarded port of Lesbos, where about half a million people – mostly Syrians, Eritreans and Egyptians fleeing civil war and dictatorship – landed in the Mediterranean last year.
The pontiff landed in a Turkish fishing boat before hiking through the barren peninsula to the main church on the island, where he described the mass influx as “a shame on our world.”
“It is our duty to show humanity,” he said before visiting a refugee camp. “I would especially like to thank the Greek people and the people of Lesbos for what they are doing. … To these men, women and children, who have so sadly come to share the earth with us, our prayer is that God will comfort them and that their suffering will ease.”
The pontiff’s focus on migration and refugees is part of an international effort to address the causes of the flow by gathering experts at a new global summit next month, convened after the European Union asked the United Nations for help following the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War II.
The church is “really there to wash our tears,” President Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus, who came to the ceremony, told the Associated Press. “Pope Francis is saying that this is not the end of the migration process and that it is going to take a lot of effort.”
In a dramatic shift from his predecessors, Francis also introduced social change to his speeches, echoing a message by his predecessor and predecessor-in-waiting, Benedict XVI, to address the “culture of waste” and to commit to protect the “natural environment” — which he said “has almost been run over by the interests of profit and power.”
The pontiff called on Europe to rid itself of a “culture of waste,” encouraging nations to pull together on environmental change, an issue that has been on the cards since 2015, when 900 migrants suffocated at the Sea of Galilee as they tried to escape Egypt.
The United Nations predicts another 400,000 migrants will reach Europe this year, twice the number from 2017, as poor economies and rising living costs force migrants to risk the sea crossing, which would not be feasible without a functioning and skilled economic development system.