Pope Francis traveled to the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday to meet with migrants and refugees fleeing war and violence in the Middle East and North Africa — and took 12 of them back to the Vatican aboard the papal plane, the Holy See Press Office said.
The Vatican will take responsibility for the three families, the statement said. All are from Syria.
“The Pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees, accompanying on his plane to Rome three families of refugees from Syria, 12 people in all, including six children,” the statement said.
These are people who were already in camps in Lesbos before the agreement between the European Union and Turkey. All three families are Muslim. Two families come from Damascus, and one from Deir Ezzor, the statement continued. “Their homes had been bombed.”
Little is known of the Pope’s plans for the families. The initial hospitality will be taken care of by the Community of Sant’Egidio.
According to its website, the Community of Sant’Egidio began in Rome in 1968, in the period following the Second Vatican Council.
“Today it is a movement of lay people and has more than 60,000 members, dedicated to evangelization and charity, in Rome, Italy, and in more than 73 countries throughout the world,” the website says
From its beginning, the Pope’s visit was deeply moving to the refugees.
Some broke down in tears, with one man shaking as he asked, “Father, bless me. Please, bless me.”
Children took pictures of the Pope with their phones as he shook hands with those gathered to greet him.
At the port, Francis offered a prayer to God for “all the men, women and children who have died after leaving their homelands in search of a better life.”
“Though many of their graves bear no name, to you each one is known, loved and cherished,” the Pope said.
Europe — and particularly the Greek islands — have been overwhelmed with a tide of migrants as the Syrian civil war continues to reduce that country to rubble.
In the 24 hours before the Pope’s arrival, 125 migrants and refugees streamed into the Greek islands from Turkey, according to Greek government figures.
Pope: ‘I embrace all in affection’
The Pope comforted the refugees he met, sharing a message on empathy.
“I have wanted to be here with you today to speak with you and tell you: You are not alone. You have endured much suffering in your search for a better life,” the Pope said. “You have made great sacrifices for your families.”
“May the world, the Good Samaritan, come to your aid with respect for human dignity,” he said.
In explaining his prayers for the refugees and migrants, Francis invoked the name of the Lord.
“I embrace all in affection,” he said. “I invoke his gift of strength and peace.”