Pope Francis flies to Cyprus on Thursday in a show of support for migrants on the island, where debate on asylum seekers has been intense, with reports saying his entourage has arranged for dozens of refugees to fly back to Italy.
Hundreds of police and law enforcement agents went on high alert this week due to Pope Francis’ visit to the divided island on Thursday afternoon through Saturday morning.
Papa Pancho, as he is affectionately known, is expected to spend a night in the UN buffer zone according to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, who said Francis would mention Cyprus’ ethnic division during his trip.
“It’s a wound that has been open for some time. The Holy See undoubtedly supports every effort to strengthen bilateral talks, which are the only solution for the island and its people,” Bruni said.
But the biggest highlight of the Pope’s visit will include an afternoon prayer with migrants on Saturday at the Church of the Holy Cross at a local parish in downtown Nicosia, where migrants cue up for aid from Catholic charities right next to no-man’s land.
It was understood that next to the church Francis will also visit the Franciscan monastery which lies in the buffer zone that splits the island east to west while also running through the heart of the medieval city, the last divided capital in the world.
Local theologian Andreas Pitsillides told state radio Thursday morning that the Pope’s visit was a “message of solidarity” towards migrants, while confirming reports that Francis has arranged to have 50 migrants relocated to Italy at the end of his trip.
“I am thinking of those who, in recent years, and still today, have been fleeing from war and poverty, landing on the shores of the continent or elsewhere, and finding not hospitality, but hostility and even exploitation,” Francis said in a video message ahead of his visit.
Greece is also on the itinerary of Francis visit, with both capitals Athens and Nicosia known for having taken a tough stance on irregular migration.
Earlier this week President Nicos Anastasiades called on Brussels to set up the “immediate introduction of a mandatory relocation program” for the island, after the government said it could not take in more refugees.
Cyprus and Greece have been criticized by activist groups and human rights organizations for enacting tough measures against asylum seekers, including pushbacks where Cypriot coast guard officers have been known to send back Syrian refugees to Lebanon.
A controversial agreement between Nicosia and Beirut provides for Syrian refugees to be pushed back if they came from Lebanon.
Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of Benedict XVI, who in 2010 became the first modern Pope to visit Cyprus.
Media reports from the Vatican said the plight of migrants is once again on Papa Pancho’s agenda, with events scheduled in both Cyprus and Greece aimed to “provide an opportunity for Pope Francis to express his solidarity and closeness to people on the move.”