"This is the message I have come to bring you today: do not lose hope," Pope Francis told migrants in Lesbos, a Greek island where thousands have landed as they try to make their way into Europe.
Now, the European Union has started deporting migrants from Greece under a controversial deal with Turkey.
"Today, I want to be with you, and I want to tell you that you are not alone," he said, according to an Agence France Presse interpreter.
And when the pope left Lesbos, he brought three Syrian refugee families with him on his airplane in a "gesture of welcome," according to a statement from the Vatican.
"The Vatican will take responsibility for bringing in and maintaining the three families," the statement said. It added that all 12 of the refugees are Muslim, and they were already in Lesbos when the EU-Turkey deal was signed last month.
The pope was joined in Lesbos by the ecumenical patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church Bartholomew I and Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos II. Joanna Kakissis told our Newscast unit that "the leaders of the eastern and western churches are on Lesbos to show solidarity with asylum seekers."
The religious leaders visited migrants in Moria, a camp that is "now a closed detention center surrounded by an iron fence," Joanna said. Some migrants held up signs reading "We are human," and "The pope is our hope."
The Associated Press describes the emotional scene at Moria:
"Many refugees fell to their knees and wept at Francis' feet as he and the two Orthodox leaders approached them at the Moria detention center. Others chanted "Freedom! Freedom!" as they passed by. Francis bent down as one young girl knelt at his feet sobbing uncontrollably. A woman told the pope that her husband was in Germany, but that she was stuck with her two sons in Lesbos."
The wire service adds that the religious leaders also "went to the island's main port to pray together and toss a floral wreath into the sea in memory of those who didn't make the journey."
In a joint statement, the three leaders said, "World opinion cannot ignore the colossal humanitarian crisis created by the spread of violence and armed conflict, the persecution and displacement of religious and ethnic minorities, and the uprooting of families from their homes, in violation of their human dignity and their fundamental human rights and freedom," Joanna reported.
The controversial deal between the EU and Turkey is heralded by EU leaders as a pragmatic solution to stem the massive influx of migrants into Europe. But rights groups say it is a dangerous deal that does not adequately protect refugees.
As the BBC reports, "The Vatican insists that the Pope's visit is purely humanitarian and religious in nature and should not be seen as a criticism of the deportations." But at the same time, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli tells Weekend Edition Saturday that "with this gesture, he's certainly setting an example and indirectly or directly telling them exactly what he thinks about the EU-Turkey deal." The pope has frequently highlighted the plight of migrants and refugees. In the past, he has said Europe has a "moral obligation" to welcome refugees, Sylvia reported Friday. He has also criticized what he calls a growing "globalization of indifference" toward their plight.
As Sylvia reported, "his first-ever papal trip out of Rome was to the Italian island Lampedusa," then a major entry point into Europe for migrants making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.
She added: "The interfaith nature of the visit is a sign of an increasingly unified voice among two major Christian religions on issues that go beyond religion and embrace global humanitarian crises."
Joanna spoke to one volunteer who said the detention center conditions today don't reflect the everyday reality.
"They wanted to present a pretty picture for this visit," Kris Krossman, an emergency medical technician from San Diego, told Joanna. Here's more:
"Greek police 'cleaned up' the main detention camp on the island, to make it look like less of a prison. He said there were people inside who hadn't had showers for more than 20 days. 'And then, suddenly, they got a shower before the pope visited,' he says."
Migrants continue to try to cross the Mediterranean to Lesbos, though at a much-reduced rate, Joanna reported. She added that Greece's coast guard says it intercepted a boat this morning carrying at least 40 people. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.