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Pope Francis takes 12 Syrian refugees to Vatican after Lesbos visit

Published 16/04/2016

Pope Francis is met by Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronimos II as he arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos at Mytilene airport on April 16, 2016 in Mytilene, Lesbos, Greece. Pope Francis will visit migrants at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos along with Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronimos II. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Pope Francis is met by Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronimos II as he arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos at Mytilene airport on April 16, 2016 in Mytilene, Lesbos, Greece. Pope Francis will visit migrants at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos along with Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronimos II. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (R) and Bartholomew I of Constantinople (L), Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch, greet Pope Francis upon his arrival on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16, 2016. AFP/Getty Images
MYTILENE, GREECE - APRIL 16: Pope Francis poses with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as he arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos at Mytilene airport on April 16, 2016 in Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece. Pope Francis will visit migrants at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos along with Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronimos II. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Refugees are seen on a beach behind a cross in a camp set up by volunteers near the port of Mytilini, on the Greek island of Lesbos (AP)

Pope Francis brought 12 Syrian Muslims to Italy aboard his plane after an emotional visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, which has faced the brunt of Europe's migration crisis.

Refugees on the overwhelmed island fell to their knees and wept at his presence.

Pope Francis hugs a child at the Moria detention center in Mytilene on April 16, 2016. Pope Francis received an emotional welcome today on the Greek island of Lesbos during a visit aimed at showing solidarity with migrants fleeing war and poverty. AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis hugs a child at the Moria detention center in Mytilene on April 16, 2016. Pope Francis received an emotional welcome today on the Greek island of Lesbos during a visit aimed at showing solidarity with migrants fleeing war and poverty. AFP/Getty Images

Some 3,000 migrants on Lesbos are facing possible deportation back to Turkey under a new deal with the European Union, and the uncertainty has caused heavy strains.

Francis decided only a week ago to bring the three refugee families to Italy after a Vatican official suggested it. He said he accepted the proposal "immediately" since it fit the spirit of his visit to Lesbos.

"It's a drop of water in the sea. But after this drop, the sea will never be the same," he said of his gesture, quoting one of Mother Teresa's phrases.

During the five-hour trip, Francis implored European nations to respond to the migrant crisis on its shores "in a way that is worthy of our common humanity".

The Greek island just a few miles from the Turkish coast has seen hundreds of thousands of desperate people land on its beaches and rocks in the last year, fleeing war and poverty at home.

The pope visited Lesbos alongside the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians and the head of the Church of Greece. They came to give a united Christian message thanking the Greek people for welcoming migrants and highlighting the plight of refugees as the 28-nation EU implements a plan to deport them back to Turkey.

Francis insisted his gesture to bring the 12 refugees to Italy was "purely humanitarian," not political. But in comments on the flight home, he urged Europe to not only welcome refugees but better integrate them into society, so they are not left in ghettos where they can become prey to radicalisation.

Many refugees wept at Francis's feet as he and the two Orthodox leaders approached them at the Moria refugee detention centre on Lesbos, where they greeted 250 people individually. Others chanted "Freedom! Freedom!" as they passed by.

Refugees holds placards that read 'Dear Pope, we are waiting for you at Idomeni' (C) as they demand the opening of the EU borders during a protest at the makeshift camp of the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, on April 16, 2016. AFP/Getty Images
Refugees holds placards that read 'Dear Pope, we are waiting for you at Idomeni' (C) as they demand the opening of the EU borders during a protest at the makeshift camp of the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, on April 16, 2016. AFP/Getty Images

Francis bent down as one young girl knelt at his feet, sobbing uncontrollably. The pope also blessed a man who wailed "Thank you. Please Father, bless me."

The Vatican said the three Syrian families, including six children, who came to Rome will be supported by the Holy See and cared for initially by Italy's Catholic Sant'Egidio Community. They were treated to a raucous welcome on Saturday night in Rome, with drummers thumping, a crowd applauding and the three mothers receiving a single red rose.

"I thank you for what you have done," Nour, a mother of a two-year-old, said of the pope. "I hope this gesture has an effect on refugee policy."

Nour and her husband, Hasan, are both engineers who lived in Zabatani, a mountainous area near the Lebanese border that has been bombed. Another family with two children hailed from Damascus and a third family with three children came from Deir el-Zour, a city close to the Iraqi border that the Islamic State group has been besieging for months, leading to malnutrition.

Two of the three had their homes bombed, said Sant'Egidio's refugee chief, Daniela Pompei.

She said the three families had been given Italian humanitarian visas and would now apply for asylum. Francis said they were selected not because they were Muslim, but because their papers were in order. They had arrived on Lesbos before the EU deportation date.

A woman holds a placard reading
A woman holds a placard reading "Welcome to Lesbos Pope Francis" on April 16, 2016 at the Moria refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos, prior the arrival of Pope Francis. AFP/Getty Images

"It's a small gesture," he said. "But these are the small gestures that all men and women must do to give a hand to those in need."

In perhaps a first, a baby's cry could be heard aboard the papal plane as Francis spoke. The 12 refugees sat right behind the papal delegation on the aircraft, and Francis greeted each one on the tarmac in Lesbos, again on the tarmac in Rome, and during the flight, said Ms Pompei.

Francis seemed particularly shaken by the trauma the children he met at the detention centre suffered as a result of their experiences. He showed reporters a picture one Afghan child gave him of a sun weeping over a sea where boats carrying refugees had sunk.

A little girl stands next to a placard reading
A little girl stands next to a placard reading "We are Yazidi people, Need Help Help Help" on April 16, 2016 at the Moria refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos, prior the arrival of Pope Francis. AFP/Getty Images

"If the sun is able to weep, so can we," Francis said. "A tear would do us good."

Hundreds of migrants have drowned so far this year in the waters between Greece and Turkey.

At a ceremony in Lesbos to thank the Greek people, Francis said he understood Europe's concern about the migrant influx. But he said migrants are human beings "who have faces, names and individual stories" and deserve to have their most basic human rights respected.

Refugee children inside Moria detention center watch protest organized by Greek solidarity group demanding closing of detention center in Moria on April 15, 2016 in Mytilini on Lesbos island in Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Refugee children inside Moria detention center watch protest organized by Greek solidarity group demanding closing of detention center in Moria on April 15, 2016 in Mytilini on Lesbos island in Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

"God will repay this generosity," he promised.

In his remarks to refugees, Francis said they should know that they are not alone and should not lose hope.

Human rights groups have denounced the EU-Turkey deportation deal as an abdication of Europe's obligation to grant protection to asylum-seekers.

Pope Francis greets migrants and refugees at the Moria refugee camp on April 16, 2016 near the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos. AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis greets migrants and refugees at the Moria refugee camp on April 16, 2016 near the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos. AFP/Getty Images

The March 18 deal stipulates that anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands since March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. For every Syrian sent back, the EU will take another Syrian directly from Turkey for resettlement in Europe.

In return, Turkey was granted billions of euros to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there and promised that its stalled accession talks with the EU would speed up.

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