ROME—The Vatican confirmed Thursday that Pope Francis will visit the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16, where he’ll meet with immigrants currently being deported back to Turkey, making the outing in tandem with Orthodox leaders based in both Greece and Turkey.
Francis is to go to Lesbos with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, with whom he’s joined forces before on matter such as environmental protection, and who joined the pontiff for a prayer service in the Vatican gardens with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents in June 2014.
According to the Vatican, it was Bartholomew who extended the invitation together with Greek president Prokopis Pavlopoulos.
“It’s very clear that the pope recognizes there is a significant emergency going on,” a Vatican spokesman told reporters on Thursday, after confirming the pope’s trip.
Details of the program haven’t been released yet, but the statement issued on Thursday says that Francis, Bartholomew and Archbishop Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens, Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, will meet with migrants and refugees.
Francis made a similar trip early in his pontificate back in 2013, when he went to the island of Lampedusa, the Italian island that hosts thousands of victims of what he’s described as “forced migration.”
Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi also made the parallel, saying it’s “natural” that Francis would want to go to Lesbos, a key place in the “dramatic situation in the Aegean front,” just as Lampedusa was then on the front line of the Mediterranean route.
Observers have pointed out that the visit is a clear political statement from Francis who, son of immigrants himself, has made forced migration a key social concern for 2016.
The announcement of the visits comes only three days after the European Union began to deport refugees from Lesbos back to Turkey, a move that has been denounced by human rights organizations under claims that it violates the continent’s obligations to protect refugees.
In return, the European Union will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and compensate Ankara with money, as well as visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.
Francis’ short visit to Greece will be the second papal trip to the country, after John Paul II, who went in 2001. At the time, he was also received by the Archbishop of Athens, Christodoulos, who gave him a public scolding over the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by Latin soldiers, for which the pontiff apologized.