Pope Francis will next week make a brief trip to Lesvos, the Greek island on the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis, the Vatican confirmed on Thursday.
”Accepting the invitation from his Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and the president of the Greek Republic, his Holiness Francis will travel to Lesvos on April 16, 2016” where he “will meet with refugees,” the Vatican said in a statement.
Francis, who has made the defense of the world's downtrodden a cornerstone of his papacy, will visit the Aegean Sea island for a few hours to draw the international community's attention to the suffering of asylum seekers, many of them on the run from a devastating war in Syria.
Greece’s islands are the point of first arrival in Europe for hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who make the perilous boat journey from Turkey.
The pope, who will set off from Rome mid morning and return at the end of the afternoon, will visit a refugee centre before making a stop at the port of Lesvos, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told the press.
Pope Francis in 2013 visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, where large numbers of migrants were arriving from conflict-hit Libya.
In March, the EU signed an accord with Turkey setting out measures for reducing the continent's worst migration crisis since World War II, including the shipping back to Turkish territory of migrants who arrive in Greece.
But on Thursday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the EU that Ankara would not implement the key deal if Brussels failed to fulfil its side of the bargain - which included six billion euros in aid for Turkey for the over 2.7 million Syrian refugees it is hosting.
The first transfer of over 200 migrants from Greece took place on Monday but the process has been stalled by a last-minute flurry of asylum applications by migrants desperate to avoid expulsion.