By Courtney Mares
From a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, Pope Francis decried European indifference to the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean as a “shipwreck of civilization.”
“The Mediterranean, which for millennia has brought different peoples and distant lands together, is now becoming a grim cemetery without tombstones. This great basin of water, the cradle of so many civilizations, now looks like a mirror of death,” Pope Francis said in Lesbos on Dec. 5.
“Let us not let our sea be transformed into a desolate sea of death. Let us not allow this place of encounter to become a theatre of conflict. … Please, brothers and sisters, let us stop this shipwreck of civilization,” he said during the live-streamed meeting.
About 200 refugees were present to welcome the pope to the Mavrovouni migrant reception and identification center located along the shore of Lesbos, according to the Vatican.
Pope Francis shook hands and offered blessings to the migrants he encountered as he walked through the camp.
“Sisters and brothers, I am here once again, to meet you and to assure you of my closeness. I am here to see your faces and look into your eyes. Eyes full of fear and expectancy, eyes that have seen violence and poverty, eyes streaked by too many tears,” he said in his speech.
“Those who are afraid of you have not seen your faces. Those who fear you have not seen your children. They have forgotten that dignity and freedom transcend fear and division. They have forgotten that migration is not an issue for the Middle East and Northern Africa, for Europe and Greece. It is an issue for the world,” he said.
Lesbos, also known as Lesvos and Mytilene, is a temporary home in the Aegean Sea for thousands of migrants. The new Mavrovouni camp that the pope visited has a capacity of 8,000 people, but is not full due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In his speech, Pope Francis repeatedly quoted Elie Wiesel, the Auschwitz survivor and author who died in 2016.
“‘When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders become irrelevant,’” the pope said, quoting Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.
In a meeting with migrants in Cyprus two days prior, Pope Francis also brought up Nazi concentration camps when discussing the suffering of migrants.
“We complain when we read the stories of the camps of the last century, those of the Nazis, those of Stalin. We complain when we see this and say, ‘but how did this happen?’ Brothers and sisters, it is happening today, on nearby shores,” the pope said in Nicosia on Dec. 3.
Pope Francis said in Lesbos that he is distressed when he hears proposals that common funds be used to build walls.
“Problems are not resolved and coexistence improved by building walls higher, but by joining forces to care for others according to the concrete possibilities of each and in respect for the law, always giving primacy to the inalienable value of the life of every human being,” he said.
This was Pope Francis’ second visit to Lesbos, which has a population of around 115,000, and housed more than 17,000 refugees before the Moria camp burned down on Sept. 8, 2020.
Pope Francis made a daylong visit to the island in April 2016 during which he visited the Moria refugee camp and returned bringing 12 refugees with him to Italy.
“Five years have passed since I visited this place … After all this time, we see that little has changed with regard to the issue of migration,” the pope said.
“With deep regret, we must admit that this country, like others, continues to be hard-pressed, and that in Europe there are those who persist in treating the problem as a matter that does not concern them,” Francis said.
During his visit to the camp, Pope Francis listened to a testimony from Christian Tango Mukaya, a Catholic refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mukaya is the father of three children — two of whom have been with him since his arrival at the Lesbos camp in November 2020. He said that his other child and wife were not able to join him in Greece and he has not heard from them in over a year.
The refugee shared how his current Catholic parish in Lesbos has been a great support to him during this time of difficulty.
“With the strength of prayer and the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Our Mother and Mother of the Church, I was able to overcome the difficulties I encountered in life as a refugee,” Mukaya said.
Pope Francis’ visit to the refugee camp occurred on the fourth day of his apostolic journey to Cyprus and Greece taking place Dec. 2-6.
After his visit to the camp, the pope will return to Athens by plane to preside over a Mass in the afternoon at the Megaron Concert Hall in the Greek capital at 5pm.
“Let us now pray to Our Lady, that she may open our eyes to the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. Mary set out in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant. How many pregnant mothers, journeying in haste, have found death, even while carrying life in their womb,” he said.
“May the Mother of God help us to have a maternal gaze that regards all human beings as children of God, sisters and brothers to be welcomed, protected, supported and integrated. And to be loved tenderly. May the all-holy Mother teach us to put the reality of men and women before ideas and ideologies, and to go forth in haste to encounter all those who suffer.”