ROME – When scrums of reporters congregate at an airport to witness someone’s arrival, it’s almost always a celebrity at the center of the storm – a head of state in town for a summit, for instance, or a movie star on hand for a film festival, or something of the sort.

On Tuesday, however, about 100 journalists made their way to a waiting area at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to watch roughly 40 Syrian refugees set foot on Italian soil for the first time after flying in from Beirut. They’re being resettled in Italy as part of an ecumenical “humanitarian corridors” effort, spearheaded by the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the “new movements” in the Catholic Church.

Sant’Egidio has been dubbed “the pope’s favorite movement” under Francis, since it pursues many of the same objectives — conflict resolution, defense of the poor, protection of the environment, opposition to capital punishment, and ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue — most prized by Francis.

As the refugees walked into the waiting area, they carried a banner reading Benvenuti in Italia, or “welcome to Italy,” and the children were chanting, “We love Italia! We love Italia!” As the adults made their way to be seated, many could be heard saying to their new hosts Shukran, the Arabic word for “thank you.”

In all, some 85 refugees, most Syrians, are expected to arrive at Fiumicino Tuesday and Wednesday, the latest wave brought to the country via the humanitarian corridors project, which was created by Sant’Egidio in partnership with the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy and the Waldensian Table, and under the terms of agreements with the government of Italy.

More than 1,000 refugees have been settled up and down Italy through the humanitarian corridor project, which creates safe and legal pathways for refugees seeking asylum in Europe and mostly in Italy.

Some scenes at the airport Tuesday morning were heart-wrenching. Seven-year old Haj Mohamed Majida, for instance, waited along with her parents, Daph Sara and Haj Mohamed Jalal, to meet her elderly Syrian grandmother for the first time in her life, and the two wept openly when they finally embraced.

Seven-year-old Hay Mohamed Majida meets her Syrian refugee grandmother for the first time at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport on Tuesday, March 27. (Credit: John Allen/Crux.)

Most of refugees arriving Tuesday are from the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Homs, Raqqa and Edlib, and one-third were children. The costs of their relocation and settlement are self-financed by the sponsoring religious groups, and won’t rely on any public funding.

Palo Naso of the evangelical federation greeted the arrivals by saying, “Welcome to our country!”

He insisted that creating opportunities for Syrian refugees to enter Europe legally and safely, without attempting to cross the Mediterranean in dangerous illegal boats, and without falling prey to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation, is a moral imperative.

“We pretend not to see, not to know, what’s happening in Syria today, in the Middle East, and in many other countries,” he said, adding that he’d spoken to a grandmother among Tuesday’s arrivals whose house in Syria had been bombed just hours before.

“This week for Christians is very important,” Naso said, referring to Holy Week. “It’s a time to think of our neighbors who are suffering, of people who have lost their homes, their families, even their lives.”

“To be here today,” he said, “is both a duty and it’s right.”

Speaking on behalf of Sant’Egidio, Marco Impagliazzo, the group’s president, said the welcome shown at Fiumicino Tuesday morning was “a fruit of the peace we have in Europe.”

“Unfortunately, for many of you the fruit of the war in Syria has been immigration, because so many of you were forced to leave,” he said. “That’s why we’re for peace, and it’s why we work for peace.”

“I want to welcome these new citizens to our country,” Impagliazzo said. “Its citizens will welcome you, and you’ll find a future here while you wait for peace to return to your country. Please work with us, always, for peace, which is the long guarantee that everyone can find a dignified place in life.”

The Sant’Egidio leader finished by shouting, “Viva la pace, viva l’italia, e viva i corridoi umanitari!

Mario Giro, speaking in his role as Italy’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, though he’s also a longtime member of Sant’Egidio, underscored the importance of efforts to restore peace.

“The war in Syria is the scandal of this century, because it hasn’t been stopped,” Giro said. “Fighting is still going on, as we know, in eastern Damascus, in Douma, and in other places. Other cities have been destroyed.”

“We don’t have any enemies beyond war itself,” he said. “There are no strangers, no different ethnicities, no different nationalities, only women and men who must be against war,” Giro said.

In comments to reporters after a brief news conference, Impagliazzo said he doesn’t believe that government backing for the humanitarian corridor project will be at risk, even if Italy’s next ruling coalition features the anti-immigrant Northern League party, which made significant gains in March 4 elections.

“I think Italy is a great country, and it will live in continuity,” he said. “We don’t know yet what the government will be, there are many hypotheses, but this accord for humanitarian corridors is important, it’s been appreciated by all political parties. It’s working, and it demonstrates that integration is the lone response to immigration.”

He conceded, however, that indications of rising racism in Italy are a concern.

“We have to work so that in Italy, integration comes to be seen in a different way,” Impagliazzo said. “There’s a big difference between the reality and the perception citizens often have, and we also have to work so that many foreigners who aren’t yet integrated will become so, which will help many Italians have less fear.”

Although the humanitarian corridors project is ecumenical in nature, Impagliazzo told Crux that for Sant’Egidio, there’s a strict connection with Francis’s leadership on the immigration issue.

“We’ve collaborated directly with the pope, for instance welcoming the refugees he brought back from Lesbos – and not just those on the plane, but all those who arrived later,” he said, referring to a group of Syrian refugees brought back to Italy by Francis aboard the papal plane following a trip to the Greek island of Lesbos in April 2016.

One year later, he said, those refugees are settled in various places in Italy, and many have found work and are successfully inserted into society (one, for example, is a trained microbiologist currently working at a Roman hospital.) Expenses for those who still need support, he said, continue to be paid directly by Francis out of his personal charitable account.

“Our collaboration with Pope Francis on this point is total,” Impaglizzo said. “We’re also very happy that Pope Francis himself, directly, is presiding over the Vatican’s office for migrants. It’s a personal concern of his, and he’s assumed responsibility personally.”

The pope’s vision, Impagliazzo said, is “leading to a change of mentalities, of attitudes, in the Church on this point. We from the community want the pope’s words to be realized, not staying just words but becoming a reality.”