ATHENS: Pope Francis on Saturday blamed the EU’s nationalist divisions for a lack of coordination on migration as he began a landmark trip to Greece, aiming to improve complicated relations with the country’s Orthodox Church.
Francis said that Europe was “torn by nationalist egoism” on migration during a meeting with EU vice president Margaritis Schinas, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, among other officials.
The European community “continues to temporize” and “appears at times blocked and uncoordinated” instead of being an “engine of solidarity” on migration, the pope said.
“Today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy,” he said, warning against populism’s “easy answers.”
Francis has long championed refugees, calling them “protagonists of a terrible modern Odyssey.”
On Sunday, he will return to the island of Lesbos which he visited in 2016 during the early years of the migration crisis.
The 84-year-old’s visit to the Greek capital is the first by a pope since John Paul II in 2001, which in turn was the first papal visit to Athens since the 1054 Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Flying in after a two-day trip to Cyprus, the pope landed shortly after 0900 GMT in the Greek capital, where security was heightened over expected protests by Orthodox hard-liners among whom anti-papal sentiment remains strong.
Strong wind offered an unexpected challenge, with Francis coming down the stairs of the plane skullcap in hand.
Francis is scheduled to see the head of the Church of Greece Archbishop Ieronymos later Saturday, followed by members of Greece’s small Catholic community, which represent just 1.2 percent of the majority-Orthodox population.
Francis flies back to Rome on Monday.
Up to 2,000 police are deployed in Athens to monitor possible disruptions by Orthodox hard-liners, who blame the Catholics for the Schism and the 1204 sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.
Reciprocal excommunications exchanged between the two churches after the Schism were only lifted in 1965.
Authorities banned protests in the Athens center, and many Greeks have expressed apathy over the visit.
“Perhaps it is important to migrants in Greece who are in need. We the Orthodox expect nothing in particular,” said Periklis, owner of a religious icon shop in Athens.
Relations with the Church of Greece are much better than they were ahead of John Paul’s visit, Pierre Salembier, head of the Jesuit Catholic community in Greece, told AFP.
But he said there were still some “known anti-Catholic fanatics” within the Church’s governing body.
The bishop of Piraeus called the pope’s visit “immoral,” according to the union of Orthodox journalists.
During his visit to Cyprus, Francis condemned “slavery” and “torture” in migrant camps, drawing parallels with World War II.
The Cyprus government said Friday that 50 migrants, including two Cameroonians stuck for months in the divided island’s buffer zone, will be relocated to Italy thanks to Francis.
On Sunday the pope will again visit Greece’s Lesbos, a flashpoint of the 2015 refugee crisis and thereafter, “as a pilgrim to the wellsprings of humanity” to call for the integration of refugees.
The island’s sprawling Moria migrant camp, which the pontiff visited in 2016, burnt down last year and has been replaced by the temporary facility of Mavrovouni.
With EU funds, Greece is building a series of “closed” facilities on Greek islands with barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, X-ray scanners and magnetic gates that are closed at night.
Three such camps have opened on the islands of Samos, Leros and Kos, with Lesbos and Chios to follow next year.
NGOs and aid groups have raised concerns about the new camps, arguing that people’s movements should not be restricted.
Thirty-six groups active in Greece this week wrote to Francis raising the plight of people in the camps and requesting his help to halt illegal pushbacks of migrants allegedly by Greek border officers.
Greece vehemently denies the claims, insisting its coast guard saves lives at sea.
Addressing Francis on Saturday, President Sakellaropoulou insisted Athens “is making every possible effort to prevent the illegal traffic of people and their political exploitation.”
The pontiff is expected to visit the camp and will meet two “randomly chosen” families, an official said.
“We await him with open arms,” said Berthe, a Cameroonian asylum seeker at the camp.
She said she hoped the pope “will pray for us to help us overcome the insecurities we have lived, through faith.”
On Wednesday, nearly 30 asylum seekers landed near the camp. On Friday, two migrants died when a speedboat overturned near the Greek island of Kos.