Pope Francis in Lesbos: island’s only Catholic parish priest ahead of visit
Pope Francis’s journey Saturday 16 April to the Greek island of Lesbos is a show of solidarity for migrants “who are people; they have a history, they have dreams, they have names.” That’s according to Fr. Leon Kiskinis, the only Catholic parish priest on the island. He told Vatican Radio's Francesca Sabatinelli that migrants need “to be treated with dignity, as human beings.”
The International Migration Organization estimates that since the beginning of this year, more than 170,000 migrants and refugees have made the treacherous journey by sea to Greece and Italy.
Since Pope Francis was elected to the papacy, Fr. Kiskinis says, he has always shown his closeness to "those on the margins, those deprived of their dignity." He recalls that the Pope’s first journey at the start of his pontificate was to the Italian island of Lampedusa in solidarity with the tens of thousands of refugees arriving on its shores.
Saturday, Pope Francis will be visiting the Greek island of Lesbos at a time when many European countries are closing their borders to refugees. It also comes amid growing criticism of the March 18 EU-Turkey deal, which stipulates anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands on or after March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.
Lesbos community did not “close doors or raise barriers”
Fr. Kiskinis says he thinks the Pope’s choice to visit Lesbos was not by chance.
“Lesbos is an island of call for these people who come from the Turkish coast; I do not think that this decision is random. Because, despite the presence of the authorities, institutions, non-governmental organizations, the local people, simple people, have shown a brotherhood, a humanity never seen before in these parts.”
The citizens of Lesbos “did not close the door, did not close their hearts, did not create borders or barriers,” he continues. Rather, they “welcomed these people in the hope that they can receive warmth and welcome in Europe, this Europe that it is the home of human rights.”
He expresses his conviction that migrants making the risky journey to Lesbos from Turkey are looking for a better future for themselves and their families and should “experience this European hospitality of human rights.”
Ecumenical dimension: unity of Churches to respond to migrant crisis
Fr Kiskinis explains that besides the humanitarian dimension of the papal visit, there is also the ecumenical aspect, “I believe that to solve this…migration crisis we should not work alone - we must collaborate; we must work together.” And that means not just European governments “but also the churches: the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Orthodox Church of Greece” should “collaborate and give witness to unity in the migration crisis.”
“We are here as Christians, without distinction of race, culture, language, religion, to give a little relief to these people, and also to raise awareness in the European community, among governments, that they need to work together…not separately, each on his own,” Fr. Kiskinis says.
“It’s not by constructing borders and barriers that one can stop these people escaping from war; they have no alternative but to get to Europe hoping for a better future. In this sense, the Pope’s visit has a great Christian ecumenical dimension.”
Small Catholic community sees Jesus in the faces of migrants
When he learned that the Pope was planning to visit the island, Fr. Kiskinis says he “was really surprised; I really didn’t believe it because I’m a parish priest, and I was not ready for a possible visit by the Pope. It’s true that the local Catholic Church is a small community, and perhaps that’s also why I am the only pastor on the island. There is only one Catholic church on this island, but it’s a community of very committed believers in welcoming these people, because our faith is not abstract, it's real. We think we see Jesus, who was hungry, naked, a stranger, in the faces of these people. Regardless of where they come from, we try to see Christ, giving them a glass of water or a shirt to cover themselves. We want to believe that we are doing it for Jesus himself.”
Small community “on outskirts of Church” feels “pampered” by papal visit
For this reason too, the priest stresses, the Pope's visit brings no small satisfaction to “this small community that is just on the outskirts of the Church.” Pope Francis, he adds, “is very sensitive to this condition. We are in Europe, we are also close to Italy, but in these islands where the Catholic community is just a small minority, we feel ‘pampered,’ if I may say so, by the presence of the Pope. It means showing us his affection, his appreciation for this small community that strives not only to stay alive, but also to be useful, speaking as a Christian, to these people who come from the Turkish coast.”
He notes that up until “three or four years ago” there was no permanent presence of a Catholic priest on the island but “these faithful were able to get along virtually alone, without a continuous ministry.” Four years ago, he notes, the bishop decided to place a permanent parish priest on the island “and then after four years comes the Pope! So we really feel pampered!"
People feel less involved since EU-Turkey accord
He says the islanders’ “fraternal welcoming” of the migrants has not faltered since the EU-Turkey accord. But there is some perceptible change …. A few months ago, he explains, people went out to help migrants who were arriving in small boats. Now, he notes, ships from the EU’s border management agency, Frontex and the Turkish coast guard go out to meet the boats so “people feel less involved …in providing assistance. It’s not that they don’t help, but they help less. But the relationship between the Islanders and migrants has not changed; the solidarity is still there though it’s less evident compared to some months ago.”
(from Vatican Radio)