The joint visit by Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios and Greek Archbishop Ieronymos to the Aegean island of Lesvos last weekend – a gesture which appeared to irk the nation’s Orthodox fundamentalists – was much more than a headline.
The presence of the three Christian leaders at the reception facilities sheltering mostly Muslim migrants and refugees was also an apology of sorts, an apology on behalf of official Christiandom for Western arrogance toward the Islamic world, and toward the East in general.
This arrogance has left deep footprints: spiritual, material and political footprints. These footprints are also reflected on the beliefs and sentiments of Western intellectuals, politicians as well as ordinary people: When you hear them talk about a “clash of civilizations” they are usually suggesting that a superior, pacificist civilization (“our civilization”) is struggling against an inferior and inherently violent one (“their civilization”).
In particular, the presence of Pope Francis – who seems to have a good understanding of how the media work and how he can utilize them for his own ends – gave the Lesvos visit a universal meaning. During his prayer at the port of Mytilene, the pope pleaded to God to “wake us from the slumber of indifference, open our eyes to their suffering, and free us from the insensitivity born of worldly comfort and self-centeredness.”
Prayers of this kind, of course, are meant to motivate other people, people who must live up to their own standards and inner integrity. Even the pontiff’s special status among the billion-strong Catholic flock is not enough to awaken the fading conscience of Europe’s conservative leaders who are, in fact, co-responsible for the conflicts and anti-migrant fences.
At least the pope has the power to prompt the faithful, those with deep respect for Francis, to see intolerant policies – such as, for example, the confiscation of refugee assets by state authorities – as a direct insult to the core of their religious beliefs.
In Greece, Pope Francis’s praise for the people of Lesvos and his admiration for the Greek people ought to be seen as a motive, and not as a reward, feeding complacency and inertia.
We must not let solidarity slip away. We must not allow anti-migrant propaganda (which is apparently on the rise, also in a bid to exploit signs of fatigue among the population) to drag Greece down to the European average level of indifference.
That’s exactly the kind of attitude that the pope denounced on Lesvos.