OXFORD, England — The archbishop of Athens, Greece, said the Catholic Church cannot continue to help refugees unless it gets more aid.
Archbishop Sevastianos Rossolatos told Catholic News Service Aug. 19 that the lone Catholic parish on the island of Lesbos was feeding refugees with help from the Rome-based Sant’Egidio Community, but said Caritas, the church’s charitable agency, urgently needed more Western aid to help refugees sleeping on the street in Athens.
“As long as there’s war and poverty in the Middle East, the refugees will keep arriving and the problems will continue,” said the archbishop, who heads the Greek bishops’ conference. “But our country will never abandon them, least of all in such circumstances, and that’s why we’re requesting greater support.”
Refugees fleeing through Turkey often take small boats to Lesbos, just a few miles from the Turkish coast; under EU law, the member state refugees first enter is responsible for processing their asylum claims, so from Lesbos they head on to cities in Greece.
Rossolatos denied reports that refugee boats had been deliberately disabled and abandoned in the eastern Mediterranean by the Greek coast guard, noting “when they approach the Greek islands, our ships always save them and carry them to land.”
He said ship patrols from the European Union’s Frontex border agency had attempted to stop refugees leaving Turkey. However, he added that those requesting asylum were cared for by Greek nongovernmental agencies, including Caritas, which works closely with U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The predominant Greek Orthodox Church does not have a refugee program, he said.
Turkey reopened its western sea and land border to refugee departures in February, after accusing the European Union of reneging on a 2015 agreement to help the estimated 3.6 million refugees on its territory. Since then, the number of arrivals in Greece has increased sixfold.
In an Aug. 11 interview with Vatican News, Maria Alverti, director of Caritas Greece, said conditions were now “inhuman and unworthy” among 32,000 refugees at camps on Lesbos, Chios, Samos and other islands, as the COVID-19 pandemic delayed asylum applications.
She said at least 16,000 people were currently stranded at Camp Moria on Lesbos, facing food shortages, abuse and violence.