ROME – As Pope Francis heads to the French port city of Marseille this weekend for a summit on the Mediterranean, two towering issues will loom especially large – the ongoing migration crisis, amid a new surge in arrivals to Europe, and the global climate agenda.
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 in 2020 and in Florence in 2022.
The theme of the pope’s visit is, “Mosaic of hope,” drawing on the image of a mosaic of different peoples and cultures that make up the Mediterranean region, as well as the desire to find solutions to the various problems that plague the area.
The largest city in southern France and an important commercial base for the Mediterranean, Marseille is known for its multicultural character, a dynamic that organizers have said gives the city great potential in helping to unite people of different cultures, languages, and traditions.
In total, the summit is expected to draw 60 representatives of various 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.
Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, archbishop of Marseille, told journalists in a recent press conference on the papal visit that discussion will include voices from all five shores of the Mediterranean: North Africa, the Near East, the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, and Southern Europe.
Aveline highlighted four main challenges he said afflict many Mediterranean countries, which he said are the problem of migration; environmental challenges; socio-economic concerns, such as poverty; and political problems, including violent conflict and anti-Christian persecution.
Of these, environmental concerns and the challenges associated with migration, both of which have long been priorities for the Argentine pope, will likely be at the forefront of Francis’s agenda, in addition to a clear appeal for peace.
Pope Francis’s visit to Marseille is taking place just two weeks ahead of his publication on Oct. 4, the feast of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, of a new exhortation on the environment, which he has said is an update to his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si, offering current data and evaluating the progress made since Laudato Si’s publication eight years ago.
It also comes ahead of the Nov. 30-Dec. 12 COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai, where the Vatican is expected to have representation.
The impact of climate change is expected to be a significant talking point during the pope’s brief, overnight visit to Marseille, as well as the specific environmental needs of the Mediterranean and the shared responsibility of regional actors to do their part in reversing problematic trends.
According to UN estimates, the Mediterranean region is warming 20 percent faster than the global average, with experts warning that the rapidly increasing temperature will lead to more intense heat waves, droughts, more extreme weather, and the continued rise in sea levels.
Access to water resources, changing ecosystems, food safety and security, and human health and security are all chief concerns for Mediterranean climate hawks. Water accessibility, particularly for those who live in remote or desert areas, is expected to be a focus of climate talks during the Rencontres Méditerranéennes.
Migration will undoubtedly be among the chief discussion points for participants, and especially for Pope Francis, who has repeatedly described the Mediterranean Sea as the world’s largest cemetery.
So far this year, nearly 130,000 migrants have landed in Italy alone, and at least 2,000 people have died in attempted crossings in small, flimsy dinghies. Rescue ships have faced increased pressure from Italian coastal authorities who refuse to let migrants saved at sea disembark.
Through visits to primary migrant arrival points, such as the Italian island of Lampedusa, Cyprus and Greece, including two visits to the Greek island of Lesbos, the pope in his decade-long reign has made migration a cornerstone of his papacy, advocating for a 4-point approach of welcome, protection, promotion and integration.
Pope Francis himself hinted that migration would be a key talking point in his Sept. 17 Sunday Angelus address, during which he said that he would go to the Marseille meeting 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.
Traveling with Pope Francis to Marseille as part of his official delegation will be Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development and the pope’s primary point man on immigration.
Yet the pope could face some resistance, as his visit takes place after recent decisions from France and Germany to tighten their migration protocols, and after declarations from top EU leaders pledging to crack down on illegal entries into Europe.
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.”
In July, Von der Leyen, Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte signed a pact with Tunisia aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Tunisia into Europe, which had become one of the preferred routes for smugglers in Africa, given that Libya is now considered too dangerous.
Among other things, the deal foresaw increased support for the European Agency for Asylum (EUAA) and the EU’s Frontex border control agency to register new arrivals and it includes plans to step up assistance for transporting asylum seekers from Italy to other EU countries.
Since that deal was struck, however, migrant crossings from Tunisia to Italy have gone up by almost 70 percent, and Italy’s already overwhelmed asylum system is at the point of asphyxiation, while other European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, have strongly opposed the plan.
Pope Francis and other Mediterranean church and civil leaders have long pushed for a unified migration policy within the EU, and while current debates cast doubt on the reality of that happening any time soon, he will likely use his platform at the Mediterranean Meetings to advocate that vision again.
Some Mediterranean leaders, however, will be notable by their absence. Patriarch Luis Raphael Sako of Baghdad was expected to attend the Rencontres Méditerranéennes, but likely be unable to attend given his current dispute with the Iraqi government over President Abdul Latif Rashid’s decision earlier this summer to withdraw a government decree recognizing Sako as head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq.
Sako, who spoke to journalists during a recent video conference, asked for more Vatican support regarding his personal situation, but said he “deeply believes” in the Mediterranean Meetings, and encouraged priests and other participants from the east to be honest and up front with the challenges they face.
On the migration front, Sako said it is an urgent issue that needs addressing and insisted that “migration in itself is not a good thing.”
“Some are welcoming refugees,” and this welcome is appreciated, he said, “but I think it’s better to help these people in their country, with their culture and traditions.”
In his press conference, Aveline stressed the need for a balanced approach to the migration issue, saying, “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.”
He 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.
Rather, 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,” focusing on the human dignity of each person, he said.
Though his is not a formal state visit to France, Pope Francis will likely have the opportunity to drive his message home to French authorities during a brief meeting with French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne after his arrival in Marseille Friday afternoon, as well as during his brief meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron Saturday prior to his departure.
With violent conflict plaguing many countries in the Mediterranean region and with the war still raging in Ukraine, it is also likely that Francis will use the occasion to again appeal for peace amid what he has often called a “third world war fought piece-meal.”
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