Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, is urging Europe to stop trying to divide what he calls economic migrants from asylum seekers.
Bartholomew is scheduled to visit the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday along with Pope Francis, and Athens Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece, to raise awareness about the troubled state of refugees and migrants in Europe.
The symbolic visit is intended to reiterate the Christian moral duty to show hospitality to strangers, Bartholomew said in an interview published Friday. He added that countries in Europe should find inspiration in the generosity shown by Lesbos residents.
“This question puts me in mind of St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews in which he reminds us not to forget hospitality because those who offer it have sometimes hosted angles without knowing it,” Bartholomew told Italian newspaper Il Messaggero.
Bartholomew added that Saturday’s trip would send a “strong message in every direction.”
“Hospitality represents a concrete example of love for our neighbor and the way all Christians should live their lives. … At this historic time and with the way the refugee crisis is developing, those people who can exercise influence have to work in this spirit,” he said.
The visit comes after the European Union reached a deal with Ankara on March 18 to curb the unprecedented influx of migrants into Europe. Last week dozens of migrants who risked their lives crossing the Aegean Sea to reach Europe were returned from two Greek islands to Turkey — the first of thousands earmarked for return under the deal.
The Vatican said Thursday that Francis' five-hour visit to Lesbos is purely humanitarian and religious in nature, not political, and wasn't meant as a criticism of the deportation program. But the pope's spokesman, Federico Lombardi, acknowledged that Francis has previously told Europe it had a “moral obligation” to welcome refugees, and that it was “evident” that the humanitarian crisis in Europe only exists because political solutions to regional conflicts haven't been found.
“Pope Francis has repeatedly referred to the ills of contemporary models of development and we share this point of view,” Bartholomew said, adding, “The segregation of certain groups of people to the advantage of others does not reflect his desire and in this context we must seek new and fairer economic systems.”