ROME – With European tensions on migration flaring up ahead of Pope Francis’s visit to Marseille for a summit on the Mediterranean region, the city’s cardinal has stressed the need for a balanced approach.
“From my view, it is necessary to avoid two obstacles that are two forms of speech: The first is irenic speech on welcome for everyone, without limits,” said Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille during a recent media roundtable.
Such language is often used by “people … who don’t live in neighborhoods that have to sustain these populations and situations,” Aveline said, pointing to drug trafficking as an example.
Yet the French cardinal also cautioned against “aggressive speech,” which, he said, “always pronounces the migrant as universally guilty for all of the country’s problems. It’s speech which in fact wants to sow war among the people” to garner political support, he said.
“But the people who have this type of speech don’t live in these neighborhoods, and don’t live the wars that are being sown,” Aveline said, insisting that the Church’s role in engaging the migration issue is “to avoid these two speeches and the very, very, very delicate line of balance on welcome and the problems.”
Pope Francis will travel to Marseille Sept. 22-23 for a third edition of the Rencontres Méditerranéennes, or “Mediterranean Meetings,” following similar gatherings of political and ecclesiastical leaders in Bari and Florence.
The summit is expected to draw 60 representatives of churches from the five shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and around 60 young people from the same areas to discuss the current political, economic, and environmental challenges of the Mediterranean region.
In previous gatherings, mayors from the various countries of the Mediterranean were present to discuss the various needs and challenges of the region. Aveline said that the presence of youth this year is a unique novelty that adds an emphasis on the future.
Of the various topics to be discussed, including the environment, poverty, and violent conflict, migration is expected to loom largest, with Pope Francis, who has made the issue of migration a cornerstone of his papacy, effectively saying so himself during his Sept. 17 Sunday Angelus address.
Speaking to faithful in St. Peter’s Square, the pope Sunday said he will go to the meeting in Marseille to “promote processes of peace, collaboration, and integration around the mare nostrum, with particular attention to the migratory phenomenon.”
“This represents a challenge that is not easy, as we also see from the news of recent days, but which must be faced together, as is essential for everyone’s future, which will only be prosperous if built on fraternity, putting human dignity, concrete people, in first place, above all the neediest,” he said.
In recent days the European Union, and Italy in particular, has faced several hurdles on the migration issue.
Last week France has ordered the number of soldiers at its border with Italy to be doubled in a bid to crack down on illegal crossings, as Italy faces a massive spike in migrant arrivals by sea from North Africa.
Germany also decided to suspend a voluntary agreement with Italy to take in migrants, accusing the Italian government of failing to live up to its obligations under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which outlined criteria for which EU states are responsible for examining an asylum request.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has asked for help given the surge of migrant arrivals, primarily from North Africa, saying at a recent press conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the Italian island of Lampedusa that “the future of Europe is at stake.”
Between Monday and Wednesday of last week alone, some 8,500 people, more than Lampedusa’s entire population, arrived in 199 boats, according to the UN migration agency. The Italian Red Cross, which runs the island’s overflowing migrant center, said that 1,500 migrants stayed there despite only having a capacity for 400.
Transfers of migrants to Sicily and the Italian mainland have not kept up with the influx of new arrivals, adding further pressure to local residents and overburdening the island’s migration management system.
Despite tensions over increased security at the border, there are rumors that Meloni and French President Emmanuel Macron, who will meet Pope Francis at his arrival in Marseille, have spoken via phone and agreed to strengthen European cooperation.
So far this year, around 127,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, almost double compared to the same period last year, with over 2,000 people having died this year in their attempt to cross from North Africa to Italy and Malta, according to the UN migration agency.
In terms of the Church’s role, Aveline said it must be “prophetic” when it comes to migration, fostering closeness, fidelity and genuine reflection on how best to move forward.
He noted that each person, in addition to having the right to migrate, also has a right not to migrate, and said reflection is also needed on this point.
“Reflection on this right, not to migrate, can develop other attitudes,” he said. “We must reflect on how to change some attitudes which are truly politically aggressive, how to change many things to ensure this right not to migrate.”
Aveline also stressed the importance for the Church to remember the dignity of each person and of human life a central component of any strategic approach, saying, “Every person is a brother or sister for whom Christ died.”
He also said “the unity of the entire human family” is another factor that must be considered when debating the issue, and that while politics is unavoidable, “a political argument that’s non-partisan” is what is most useful.
Since most of Europe’s migrants hail from North Africa, Aveline said the initial idea was to hold this week’s Mediterranean Meetings there, but conceded that “the political situation in these countries didn’t allow it.”
In addition to the participation of young people – who hail from Palestine, Israel, Algeria, Morocco, Greece, Turkey, and beyond – Aveline said another unique aspect of the discussion is that the needs of the Mediterranean will be evaluated from “the five shores.”
Reflecting from the perspective of these five shores – North Africa, the Near East, the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, and Southern Europe – will be a “key” for the discussion which Aveline said “broadens a lot the common vision.”
He said the bishops of Libya, a primary migrant departure point, will not participate in the meeting because the Vatican’s nuncio to Libya will be visiting the country for the first time in eight years.
After an initial roundtable discussion, there will be small group work among the bishops and youth. The bishops and youth will then come together for a joint discussion, offering what Aveline said was “an even more precise image of the various contexts of the Mediterranean.”
Aveline said the Mediterranean region is afflicted by four main problems. In addition to migration, he said, there are also socio-economic concerns, environmental challenges, and political problems.
Together, these issues create a swath of conditions that make life impossible for many, who see migration as their only chance for a better life, he said.
With so many representatives from around the Mediterranean present in Marseille, Aveline said the meeting is an opportunity to raise public awareness about regional challenges, and that a festival happening in the city at the same time will also allow people to experience the Mediterranean through art, cuisine, celebration, and discussion.
As a way of engaging locals, participants in the Mediterranean Meetings, including bishops and young people, will divide into small groups and visit diocesan parishes Thursday evening to meet the local Christian population and have an exchange.
Aveline also underlined the interreligious component of the meeting, noting that Marseille is as diverse as the Mediterranean itself.
Of the city’s 800,000 inhabitants, around 250,000 are Muslim; 80,000 are Jewish; 80,000 are Armenian; 20,000 are Buddhists, and Christians make up the rest.
“In Marseille, we do a tour of the world in 24 hours,” Aveline said, noting that there are both Russian Orthodox and Orthodox from the Patriarchate of Constantinople present in Marseille, but the Russian Orthodox Church is no longer represented in the association selected to organize a memorial Friday night for migrants who have perished at sea.
Pope Francis’s presence at the meeting, he said, will offer a vision that helps attendees “to go toward the future of this work.”
In his Sunday Angelus remarks, Pope Francis asked faithful to pray for his visit to Marseille, and thanked the civil and ecclesial authorities who organized both the logistics, and the discussion.
Calling Marseille “a city rich in people, called to be a port of hope,” the pope offered his personal greeting to its inhabitants, saying he is eagerly waiting “to meet many dear brothers and sisters.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen