MYTILENE, Greece— “Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories, and need to be treated as such.”
This Tweet, sent out by @Pontifex as Pope Francis was leaving Rome for a quick visit to the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday, was, in a nutshell, his entire message on the foray, which brought him to a detention camp for refugees attempting to make their way into Europe.
A guest of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos, and accompanied by Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Francis told the refugees he’d gone to Greece to “be with you and to hear your stories.”
“We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for resolution,” he said as he visited the Moria refugee camp turned detention center after the European Union and Turkey brokered a deal to deport refugees arriving on the Greek islands in rubber dinghies back to Turkey.
“As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf,” he added, appealing for the world to “heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”
Francis’ trip, among the shortest of his papacy outside of Italy, included only two speeches and a prayer: One at the camp and one at the local port, where he met the citizens and the Catholic community.
The prayer was staged overlooking the Aegean Sea, which, as each of the three leaders said at one time or another, has become “a cemetery” for refugees.
However limited his speeches, the pope’s gestures along the way spoke volumes.
From his embrace of the two Orthodox leaders, with whom he forged a united front despite their historical differences, to dedicating more than an hour to greet over 400 of the 3,060 refugees currently living in the camp with an uncertain future, Francis said it all with his actions.
Though perhaps not intended as photo-ops, those gestures undoubtedly will become icons of the cause of protecting refugee rights.
Images of Francis holding babies, bringing comfort to those who couldn’t stop crying, attentively listening to an Iraqi woman as she begged for help in medical care for her young daughter with bone cancer, a young man who wept as he asked for a blessing, and a woman begging for her sufferings to end, seem destined to live on long after the pontiff returns to Rome.
Francis seemed to want to remember the moments too. As he was going through the refugee camp in the morning, a girl handed him a drawing. After praising her work, he handed it to one of the members of his security team asking him not to fold it.
“I want to put it on my desk,” Francis said.
Speaking to the local community, Francis urged world leaders to work together to bring solutions to the “complex issue” of refugees. Among other things, he reiterated his hope for the success of the U.N.’s World Humanitarian Summit, being held in Istanbul in late May.
Ieronymos echoed the sentiment, urging U.N. agencies to “finally, using the great experience that they offer, address this tragic situation that we’re living.”
“I hope that we never see children washing up on the shores of the Agean,” he said. “I hope to soon see them there, untroubled, enjoying life.”
The head of the Greek Orthodox Church wasn’t tepid in saying that this is not the first time religious leaders have denounced the politics that have led the refugees to the current predicament.
“We will act however, until the aberration and depreciation of the human person has stopped,” he said.
Speaking directly to the European leaders, Ieronymous said that only those who’ve personally encountered the refugees will recognize the “bankruptcy” of humanity and solidarity the continent has shown during the crisis.
Also addressing the refugees in the Moria camp, Bartholomew said he knows those stranded there are fleeing war and looking for a brighter future, adding that he, Francis and Ieronymos had wept “as we watched the Mediterranean Sea becoming a burial ground for your loved ones.”
“But we have also wept as we saw the hard-heartedness of our fellow brothers and sisters – your fellow brothers and sisters – close borders and turn away,” he said.
Bartholomew said that “those who are afraid of you have not looked at you in the eyes. Those who are afraid of you do not see your faces. Those who are afraid of you do not see your children.”
Although he didn’t voice the connection, observers saw his remarks as a reference to an issue that’s been raised repeatedly after recent attacks in Paris and Brussels: Fear of terrorists hiding amidst the migrants.
Not one to beat around the bush, the patriarch, whose Church is based in Istanbul, said the world will be judged by the way it’s treated these refugees.
“We will all be accountable for the way we respond to the crisis and conflict in the regions that you come from,” he added.
Peace in the homelands of the migrants and refugees was yet another common denominator for the three leaders.
The pope addressed this in the port, where he said that it’s not enough to limit the international response to emergencies as they arise.
“It is necessary, above all, to build peace where war has brought destruction and death, and to stop this scourge from spreading,” he said.
“To do this, resolute efforts must be made to counter the arms trade and arms trafficking,” because those who carry out acts of hatred and violence “must be denied all means of support,” he said.
Bartholomew made a special appeal for the dramatic situation of Christians in the Middle East as well as other ethnic and religious minorities in the region, “who need urgent action if we do not want to see them disappear.”
In a strong signal of support for the Greek government, the three leaders praised its national response to the refugee crisis, which came as the country was fighting its own economic meltdown.
After delivering their speeches at the camp, the three leaders signed a joint declaration urging all the nations in the world to extend temporary asylum “for as long as the need exists.”
They also urged all religious communities to increase their efforts to receive, assist and protect refugees of all faiths.
In an ecumenical gesture, the three committed to intensifying their efforts to promote full Christian unity.
“By defending the fundamental human rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, and the many marginalized people in our societies, we aim to fulfil the Churches’ mission of service to the world,” they said in a joint statement.
Before wrapping up their visit to the refugee-detention center, the three had lunch with a group of migrants.
The pontiff said that the contribution of Churches and religious communities is “indispensable,” adding that his presence along with Bartholomew and Ieronymos is a “sign of our willingness to continue to cooperate so that the challenges we face today will not lead to conflict, but rather to the growth of the civilization of love.”
The outing ended with the three leaders praying together to honor those who died trying to reach safer lands.
“Though many of their graves bear no name, to you [God] each one is known, loved and cherished,” Francis said in his prayer. “Wake us from the slumber of indifference, open our eyes to their suffering, and free us from the insensitivity born of worldly comfort and self-centeredness.”