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Pope seeks to renew European dream as he accepts unity prize

Published 06/05/2016

German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the St Damaso courtyard at the Vatican ahead of her private meeting with Pope Francis (AP)
German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the St Damaso courtyard at the Vatican ahead of her private meeting with Pope Francis (AP)

Pope Francis, accepting a prize for promoting European unity, has bemoaned that the continent's people "are tempted to yield to our own selfish interests and to consider putting up fences".

"I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime, but a summons to a greater commitment on behalf of the dignity of every human being," he told an audience including German chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian premier Matteo Renzi and Spain's King Felipe VI.

"I dream of a Europe that promotes and protects the rights of everyone, without neglecting its duties toward all. I dream of a Europe of which it will not be said that its commitment to human rights was its last utopia."

The pontiff, the son of European immigrants to Argentina, accepted the International Charlemagne Prize, for his "message of hope and encouragement".

Echoing the famous "I have a dream" speech by US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, Francis offered his vision of a Europe that cares for children, the elderly, the poor and the infirm, as well as "those newcomers seeking acceptance because they have lost everything and need shelter".

Notwithstanding the prize's underlying positive message, the pope tacitly acknowledged a backdrop of a Europe engulfed in a crisis of confidence, prompted by the threat of terrorism and surge of migrants, and giving strength to nationalistic sentiments that seek to undermine the notion of a united continent.

He also said youth unemployment was sapping the continent of its dynamism, and he called for new economic models that are "more inclusive and equitable".

"There is an impression that Europe is declining, that it has lost its ability to be innovative and creative, that it is more concerned with preserving and dominating spaces than with generating processes of inclusions and change," Francis said.

He urged Europeans to undergo a "memory transfusion", citing a phrase by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, to remember Europe's fractured past when confronting issues that threaten again to divide it.

"A memory transfusion can free us from today's temptation to build hastily on the shifting stands of immediate results, which may produce quick and easy short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fulfilment," he said.

The pope said the Roman Catholic Church can play a role in "the rebirth of a Europe, weary, yet still rich in energies and possibilities".

Before the ceremony in the frescoed Sala Regia, Francis met privately with Ms Merkel, as well as with European parliament president Martin Schulz, a previous Charlemagne Prize recipient, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Junker and EU Council president Donald Tusk, who also attended the ceremony.

Mr Junker, in his remarks, praised the pope for taking three Syrian refugee families to Rome with him at the end of his recent visit to Greece.

"When you take in 12 refugees, in proportion to the population of the Vatican that is more than any EU member state - you fill our hearts with new courage," Mr Junker said.

The Charlemagne prize, consisting of a medal and a citation, is awarded annually by the German city of Aachen for contributions to European unity. Previous winners include former US president Bill Clinton and St John Paul II, who received a special edition of the prize in 2004. The prize is normally given in Aachen but was transferred to the Vatican for the pope's convenience

The Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne once ruled a large swath of western Europe from Aachen, near the Belgian border.

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