Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, are due to arrive on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos on Saturday to meet with refugees in a symbolic visit that seeks to highlight the unfolding humanitarian crisis on Europe’s doorstep and to further a recent thaw in relations between the two churches after centuries of bitter rivalry.
Along with Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and All Greece, the pair will visit the island’s Moria center, currently sheltering some 3,000 asylum seekers, and will have lunch with eight of the residents.
All three men will then head to the port, where they will recite prayers after a speech by the pope, who has repeatedly come to the defense of refugees, urging fellow Catholics in Europe to welcome them.
Reports from Lesvos say the area in and around the camp has been given a makeover, triggering criticism that it took a high-level visit for the refugees to experience better living conditions, albeit for a few days.
Ahead of the visit, the Istanbul-based patriarch cited St Paul’s call for hospitality and called on the European Union not to divide migrants into asylum seekers and economic migrants.
“St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews reminds us not to forget hospitality because those who offer it have sometimes hosted angels without knowing it,” he told Italian daily Il Messaggero, adding that “hospitality represents a concrete example of love for our neighbor.”
Despite recent efforts toward a rapprochement between the two Christian churches that went their separate ways in the Great Schism of 1054, the pope’s visit has drawn the opposition of several hardline Orthodox clerics and faithful, with some urging authorities to cancel the visit.
The hardline Bishop Amvrosios of Kalavryta took a swipe at Francis on Friday, saying that if the pope really wants to offer help he should set up “dignified reception centers in Italy with Vatican money and take in the downtrodden in Idomeni.”
The divide between the two churches almost 1,000 years ago led to growing animosity between Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.
Anti-Catholic sentiment still thrives among some Orthodox believers and especially among the monastic communities of Mount Athos – one of the most sacred centers of the Orthodox faith – who refuse to “forgive” the brutal sacking of the Byzantine Orthodox capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade called by Pope Innocent III.
Many historians contend the Greek-speaking empire never fully recovered from the sacking, which led to its ultimate demise in the 15th century at the hands of the invading Ottoman Turks.