Pope Francis arrived in Cyprus armed with a message of compassion for the thousands of migrants who sought refuge on the eastern Mediterranean island, and a promise that by the end of the year 50 refugees will have been relocated to Italy.
The pontiff embarked on a politically sensitive tour on Thursday as the EU country closest to the Middle East grapples with an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers.
“These are our brothers and sisters,” he said in a video message ahead of the visit.
Francis made the defense of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy. In 2016, the Roman Catholic leader stunned the European political elite when he chose to share his plane for Rome with 12 refugees at the end of a historic trip to Lesvos, the island then at the heart of the migration crisis.
Five years later, the Pope made it clear that on his pilgrimage to war-divided Cyprus, his mind would again be focused on those who had reached Europe often in the face of great adversity.
“I also think of those who, in recent years and even today, fled war and poverty, landed on the shores of the continent and elsewhere and encountered not hospitality but hostility and even exploitation” , he said this weekend. “How many have lost their lives at sea! Today our sea, the Mediterranean, is a great cemetery.
The five-day tour, which also includes Greece and a second whirlwind visit to Lesvos, comes against a backdrop of tightening global migration policy.
Nicosia and Athens have both been accused of using violent methods, including pushing back boats carrying asylum seekers, to keep migrants and refugees at bay.
In a letter released Thursday highlighting the alleged violations, 36 NGOs requested to meet with the religious leader when he arrived in Greece on Saturday.
In Cyprus, aid workers and Greek Cypriot officials said they were overwhelmed by the number of arrivals, which at the start of November was up 38% compared to 2020 as a whole.
In May, the government declared a state of emergency, saying asylum seekers exceeded 4% of the local population.
Most cross the Turkish-occupied north through the buffer zone that crosses the island, a legacy of the frozen conflict that has haunted the country since 1974, when a coup aimed at unity with Greece pushed Ankara to invade.
The Vatican has signaled that the Pope, who will be staying in a Franciscan monastery in no man’s land, will mention the need to “strengthen bilateral talks” in order to resolve the division of the island.
In a journey that should be loaded with symbolism, an ecumenical mass with migrants is scheduled at the Holy Cross Church in Nicosia after a service at the capital’s outdoor stadium on Friday. Francis described Cyprus as the outpost of the Holy Land on the European continent.
“It comes with a message of acceptance and tolerance,” Father Jerzy Kraj, patriarchal vicar of the island’s Latin community, told the Guardian. “We see his visit to the outskirts of Europe as a sign that he wants to encourage all of us to help and accept them.”
The cleric confirmed that 50 vulnerable refugees would be transferred to Rome at the request of the Pope.
The tour, the last the 80-year-old pope will take in 2021, surprised Catholic clergy given the size of congregations in both countries.
There are barely 25,000 Catholics in Cyprus and barely double that in Greece.
But Father Kraj said that while only seven years had passed since the previous pope’s visit to Cyprus, the trip was in keeping with a man who chose to bear the name of one of the most revered figures of Christianity.
“Pope Francis has a Franciscan heart,” he said. “We never dreamed that he would come to Cyprus so soon, but it is on the outskirts that people are in need. He comes as a brother and to show them his love.