Pope, diplomats name migration as key theme of Greece-Cyprus trip

By Elise Ann Allen

ROME (Crux) – Just days before Pope Francis’ December 2-6 visit to Greece and Cyprus, he and the Cypriot Ambassador to the Holy See issued statements highlighting, among other things, the urgency of the migration issue for the island nation and the wider Mediterranean region.

Refugees and migrants stand next to a tent in Mavrovouni camp on the island of Lesvos, Greece, March 29, 2021. Pope Francis will visit Lesvos on December 5, 2021, during his trip of five days in Cyprus and Greece. (Photo: CNS / Elias Marcou, Reuters)

In a video message to Greece and Cyprus published on November 27, Pope Francis insisted that “Europe cannot ignore the Mediterranean, the sea which has seen the spread of the Gospel and the development of great civilizations. “.

[Related: Vatican Releases Program for Papal Trip to Cyprus, Greece]

“The mare nostrum, which connects so many lands, invites us to navigate together, not to be divided by separating us”, especially with the pandemic still ongoing and at a time when “the climate crisis is looming”, has t -he declares. , adding that the sea, “which embraces many peoples, with its open ports reminds us that the sources of living together lie in mutual acceptance”.

Pope Francis is due first to Nicosia from December 2-4, then to Athens and Lesvos from December 4 to 6. This will be Pope Francis’ second visit to Lesvos, the first being in 2016 when he brought back a dozen Syrian Muslim refugees with him on his flight back to Rome.

In his own statement last week, Cypriot Ambassador to the Holy See George Poulides stressed the importance of ecumenical prayer with migrants and refugees at the Catholic Parish of Holy Cross in Nicosia, which will take place on 3 December.

“Cyprus is located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean and receives a large number of immigrants on a daily basis whose final destination is other countries of the European Union”, Poulides said, insisting that the Cypriot authorities ” do everything possible to combat the phenomenon, always with respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of these people.

He noted that a large number of incoming migrants arrive from the Turkish-controlled north, which southerners see as occupied territory.

The arrival of migrants and refugees from northern Turkey has been a point of contention among southern Greek Cypriots, who, like the Polish authorities in their migration stalemate with neighboring Belarus, accused Turkey of intentionally allowed migrants to cross the Green Line in order to destabilize the south and change its demographics.

In his video, Pope Francis said that as he prepared for the visit his thoughts turned to “those who in recent years and still today have fled war and poverty, landing on the shores of the continent and elsewhere, and encountering not hospitality but hostility and even exploitation.

These people “are our brothers and sisters,” he said, adding: “How many have lost their lives at sea! Today our sea, the Mediterranean, is a great cemetery.

“As a pilgrim to the sources of humanity, I will return to Lesbos, convinced that the sources of common life will only flourish in fraternity and integration: together. There is no other way and with this vision I am going to you, ”he said.

Cypriot authorities announced last week that during his visit to the island, he intends to make a similar gesture to the one he made on Lesvos in 2016 and is organizing to transfer an unknown number of migrants from Cyprus to the island. ‘Italy.

According to the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), which tracks asylum claims in Europe, there were around 19,660 pending asylum claims in Cyprus at the end of 2020.

Since the start of the year, the number of new arrivals has already increased by 38% compared to last year, making Cyprus, the EU country closest to the Middle East, one of the main entry points for migrants and refugees seeking access to Europe.

Most of these new arrivals, some 9,270 of the 10,868 new arrivals, entered by sliding across the Cyprus ‘Green Line’, a UN-controlled buffer zone that is the legacy of an agreement. 1974 ceasefire between Cyprus and Turkey, which divides Cyprus between the Turkish Cypriot north and the internationally recognized south.

Currently, asylum seekers represent around 4% of the population in the south of the island, four times the average of other EU Member States on the front lines.

In Greece, on the other hand, the figures have improved since Pope Francis’ last visit, falling to 40,559 asylum applications in 2020, or 47.52% less than in 2019, according to AIDA.

There has also been a drop in the number of arrivals, with around 15,696 refugees and migrants arriving in Greece in 2020, which represents a drop of 78.9% in 2019. Yet although the numbers have improved, the Greece still has thousands of asylum claims in process, and conditions in its camps have barely improved, many still overcrowded.

Greece and Cyprus have taken measures to limit the number of migrant arrivals through so-called “push-backs” of those arriving by land and sea, and legislative obstacles which either make their enforcement more difficult, or forced returns to the countries of origin.

Beyond migration, Poulides said Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades should brief the Pope on “the latest developments in the Cypriot question”, including what he said were “recent provocations from Turkey both on land and at sea and the ongoing efforts to resolve the Cyprus problem. “

Local and UN-level efforts to resolve the feud between have been thwarted by “Turkish provocations,” he said, insisting that the Republic of Cyprus, which is the only internationally recognized government on the island, “seeks to find a just and viable solution to the Cyprus problem” which respects the resolutions of the UN Security Council and which conforms to EU law.

Anastasiades, Poulides said, is also expected to brief the Pope “on the humanitarian issue of missing persons, the protection of cultural heritage and efforts to promote interfaith dialogue”, which will also play a major role in the pontiff’s visit to Cyprus and Greece.

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