Pope Francis brought 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome after a quick visit to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The Holy See confirmed Saturday that the three Muslim families, including six children, would be housed in the Vatican. Francis wanted to “make a gesture of welcome” to refugees, the statement said.
The families hail from three different cities in Syria. All lost their homes to bombings. Francis said his decision to bring them back to Rome was "purely humanitarian" and not a political act. However, it came as attitudes in Europe appeared to be hardening over accepting more refugees.
WATCH: Pope Brings Home Refugee Families From Greek Island
Before departing from Lesbos, Francis was joined by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos II in signing a declaration urging the international community to make the protection of migrant lives a priority and to extend temporary asylum to those in need.
The three clerics led a minute of silence in front of hundreds of people at the Lesbos port of Mytilene, before tossing floral wreaths into the sea in memory of those who perished while trying to reach to Europe.
Moria detention camp
Earlier, Francis visited the Moria detention camp in Lesbos.
Adults and children broke down in tears at the sprawling fenced complex on the Aegean island, pleading for help after their journey to Europe was cut short by an EU decision to seal off a route used by a million people fleeing conflict since early 2015.
Francis also accepted drawings and paintings from children. As he handed one art project to his staff, he said, "Don't fold it. I want it on my desk."
The European Union and Turkey have entered into a controversial deportation deal to try to end Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.
Human rights groups say the scheme for dealing with the crisis does not recognize the inherent dignity of the migrants as human beings, but instead treats them as merchandise that can be traded back and forth.
The Vatican said the pope's trip was not a "direct" criticism of the scheme, but was a purely humanitarian visit.
Earlier Saturday, the pontiff met U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
The two men had a brief morning exchange at a Vatican guesthouse where the pope lives and where Sanders and his wife spent the night.
Asked about the meeting later, Francis said the encounter was not planned and that he shook Sanders' hand to be polite. He said he was not "meddling" in American politics and that anyone who thought so "should see a psychiatrist."
Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, said he told the pope he admired the pontiff's efforts to raise issues such as "the need for morality in the global economy."
Later, Sanders said he thought Francis was an "extraordinary figure in modern world history." He said he admired the pope for "enlightening the world about the massive levels of income and wealth inequality" and "a culture which rewards greed and ignores people who are hurting."
Sanders, who is Jewish, said he was honored to meet Francis.