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Pope Francis, in Cyprus and Greece, speaks up for migrants and apologises to Orthodox

08 December 2021

Alamy

Pope Francis meets migrants and refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre in Mytilene on Lesbos, on Sunday

Pope Francis meets migrants and refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre in Mytilene on Lesbos, on Sunday

THE Pope, on a visit to Greece and Cyprus, has urged governments not to let the migrant crisis “sink civilisation”, and has asked forgiveness from the Orthodox for past Roman Catholic misdeeds.

“Let us overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disinterest that condemns those on the margins to death with velvet gloves,” the Pope told Greek and United Nations officials. “Of course, we understand the fears and insecurities, difficulties and dangers. . . But it is not by raising barriers that problems are solved and coexistence improved.”

The Pope, who is 84, was speaking on Sunday at a migrant and refugee reception centre on Lesbos. He said that he was grateful to many people who had helped to “welcome and integrate” migrants since his previous visit in 2016.

He said, however, that migration problems had been “terribly hidden” during subsequent crises over the coronavirus and climate change. He now feared “a new age of walls and barbed wire”.

“The Mediterranean, which for millennia has united different peoples and distant lands, is becoming a cold cemetery without tombstones — this large basin of water, cradle of many civilisations, now looks like a mirror of death,” he said.

“Let us not let the Mare Nostrum turn into a desolating Mare Mortuum, or this sea of memories be transformed into a sea of forgetfulness. Brothers and sisters, please stop this sinking of civilisation.”

Concern for migrants and refugees was a key theme of the five-day visit, which began with the Pope’s arrival at Larnaca on Thursday of last week.

Meeting migrants at Holy Cross, Nicosia, the Pope said that God was encouraging “a dream of humanity freed from walls of division and hostility, where there are no longer strangers but only fellow citizens”.

The encounter took place close to the UN-patrolled “green line” that separates Greek Cyprus from the Turkish-backed Republic of Northern Cyprus, occupying a third of the island, which has the European Union’s highest concentration of refugees and asylum-seekers per capita.

Cypriot authorities confirmed that the Pope had arranged for 50 asylum-seekers to be transferred to Italy over coming months, in a parallel with the programme that brought more than 4200 out via Sant’Egidio Community in Rome in 2016 (News, 1 January 2016).

Meeting clergy in the Maronite cathedral in Nicosia, the Pope described Cyprus as “a history of intertwined peoples, a mosaic of encounters”; its small RC Church, he said, could offer “a common home, a place of relationships and coexistence in diversity”.

He continued: “This is also an important message for the Church throughout Europe, marked by the crisis of faith. It does little good to be impulsive and tempestuous, nostalgic or querulous; instead, we do well to march forward, reading the signs of the times as well as the signs of the crisis.”

The Pope offered the same message of openness during talks with the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, and government officials, while acknowledging the “terrible laceration” suffered by the country since its partition in 1974.

At a later meeting of Pope Francis with members of the predominant Church’s Holy Synod, in the Orthodox cathedral in Nicosia, Archbishop Chrysostomos II spoke of the part played by the island as a source of European Christianity, dating from a first-century mission by St Barnabas; but he also recalled that 200,000 Christians had been expelled from their homes, and many historic churches had been looted, after the 1974 invasion.

“In this holy and just struggle of ours, we look forward to your help in safeguarding and respecting our cultural heritage and upholding the timeless values of our Christian culture, so brutally violated today by Turkey,” the 80-year-old Archbishop told the Pope.

In his reply, the Pope said that he believed in following a path to “ever greater fraternity and full unity”, and that Orthodox leaders could “truly help” the RC Church in its current attempts to “rediscover the synodal dimension essential to being Church”.

“Today, too, there is no lack of falsehood and deception that the past can set before us to hinder our journey,” the Pope said. “Centuries of division and separation have made us assimilate, even involuntarily, hostility and prejudice with regard to one another — preconceptions often based on scarce and distorted information, spread by an aggressive and polemical literature.”

Local media reported that three of the Synod’s 16 members had stayed away from the cathedral meeting, and that a similar partial boycott had occurred during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cyprus in 2010.

Small protests also occurred during the Pope’s stay in Athens, where national TV showed an elderly Orthodox priest being dragged away by police while denouncing the Pope as a “heretic”, and the conservative Metropolitan Seraphim of Pireus told a Sunday congregation that the papacy had become a “heretical religious society” introducing “false, man-made doctrines”.

Meeting the Pope on Saturday, the Archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos II, backed joint Orthodox-RC action on climate change and immigration, and said that both communities could learn from their “common course” before the Great Schism of 1054.

He also hoped, however, that Pope Francis would have “courage and sincerity”, as the “ground-breaking Primate of the Roman Catholic Church”, to consider “failures and omissions” by past popes in declining to support Greece’s independence struggle in the 1820s and ’30s.

The Pope conceded that his Church had been shamed by “actions and decisions with little or nothing to do with Jesus and the gospel, but marked instead by a thirst for advantage and power”.

He said that he was again asking forgiveness, as St John Paul II had during his historic 2001 visit, for “mistakes committed by many Catholics”, but also hoped that Catholic and Orthodox Christians would not “remain paralysed by the negative experiences and prejudices of the past”.

With six dioceses and archdioceses, the Roman Catholic Church makes up just two per cent of Greece’s population of 10.8 million, and has long complained of discrimination in the country, where the Orthodox Church claims the nominal loyalty of 95 per cent of citizens, and has resisted any change to its predominant position.

The Anglican chaplaincies in Athens, Corfu, Crete, Nafplio, Patras, and Thessaloniki are part of the diocese in Europe.

In his address to government leaders in Cyprus, the Pope also appealed for “appropriate institutional recognition” for Roman Catholics and other “statistical minorities”, to facilitate their social, educational, and charitable contribution.

At a service in St Dionysius the Areopagite RC Cathedral, Athens, Pope Francis urged small churches to take inspiration “from the mustard seed, which appears insignificant but grows slowly and quietly”. God chose the “poor and lowly”, he said, and often changed history “by the simple acts of ordinary people”.

Greek commentators praised the Pope’s wide-ranging speech on Saturday at the presidential palace in Athens. The Pope warned of a current “retreat from democracy”, and cautioned against the attractions of “peremptory authoritarianism” and the “easy answers of populism”.

“Democracy was born here — and this cradle, millennia later, has become a home, a great house of democratic peoples: I am referring to the European Union, and the dream of peace and fraternity it represents for so many,” the Pope told government leaders, including Greece’s centre-right Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

“But democracy requires participation and involvement by all. It consequently demands hard work and patience.”

Responding to the Pope’s words, the President of Greece, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, said that the work of Christian churches for “unity and concord”, as well as their concern for migrants and refugees, the poor, the environment, and pandemic sufferers was important for wider society.

“The politics of care and humanity pave the way for peaceful coexistence and prosperity for all,” said the President, who also accompanied the Pope to Lesbos.

“The safeguarding of human dignity and social cohesion is the challenge that gives meaning to the relationship between ecclesiastical and secular authorities in a global society which has inexhaustible potential, but also painful contradictions.”

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