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Greek Church Says Pope to Visit Greece to Highlight Refugee Crisis

  • Reuters

FILE - Pope Francis speaks to migrants during his visit to the island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, July 8, 2013. The pontiff traveled there to pray for migrants lost at sea.

FILE - Pope Francis speaks to migrants during his visit to the island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, July 8, 2013. The pontiff traveled there to pray for migrants lost at sea.

The Greek Orthodox Church on Tuesday said it had accepted a suggestion from Pope Francis that he visit Greece to highlight the plight of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict.

The Holy Synod, the ruling body of the Greek Orthodox Church, said in a statement that it wants the pontiff to visit Lesbos, the Aegean island where hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have arrived in the past year.

A Greek Church official said the trip could take place as early as this month.

The Greek statement said the pope had expressed a wish to make a visit to draw attention to conflict in the wider Mediterranean area "which has a detrimental effect on Christian communities, but also to highlight the humanitarian problem caused by desperate refugees who are seeking a better future in Europe."

Two Vatican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been discussions between the two Churches on a visit to the island but that no date had been set.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he could neither confirm nor deny that the pope would go.

A first group of 202 migrants, mostly Pakistani and Afghan, were shipped back to Turkey on Monday under an agreement which will see Ankara take back all migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean to enter Greece illegally.

In return, the European Union will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with money, visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.

The statement by the Greek Orthodox Church said a visit by the pope would be "of a few hours duration, purely humanitarian and symbolic."

A Greek Church official told Reuters the visit could take place on April 14 or 15. Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of world's Orthodox Christians, would also be invited, the official said.

Francis has made repeated appeals in defense of refugees, asking Europe to accept them.

Several months after his election, Francis chose the Sicilian island of Lampedusa as the venue for his first trip as pope in order to draw attention to the plight of migrants and pay tribute to thousands who died trying to make the sea crossing from north Africa.

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