x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 August 2017

Pope’s gesture has meaning

Criticism of the pontiff’s visit to Syrian refugees on a Greek island is misguided

Pope Francis greets a group of Syrian refugees upon lading at Rome's Ciampino airport. (Filippo Monteforte /Pool Photo via AP)
Pope Francis greets a group of Syrian refugees upon lading at Rome's Ciampino airport. (Filippo Monteforte /Pool Photo via AP)

There will be some who will look at the visit of Pope Francis to the Greek island of Lesbos and the decision to take back three families to the Vatican as little more than a publicity stunt. At a time when the Middle East is straining to accommodate the majority of Syrian refugees, and hundreds of thousands more are finding their way to Europe, the comfort offered by the Catholic pontiff can seem merely tokenistic.

A reasonable point, but one that overlooks the importance of symbolism. The very fact that the pope went to the island and met refugees, many of whom are Muslim, although a great many are Christians, will be understood as solidarity between two great faiths.

It also reminds a watching world that the refugee issue has not gone away and remains an open wound – daily, these men, women and children are suffering, forgotten by a world that appears indifferent to their fate. Pope Francis talked of “our common humanity”, and these are important words to hear from someone with his moral authority.

There could also be a wider potential effect. Anti-migrant feeling is rising across Europe, but appears particularly bad in those countries closest to the European Union’s periphery.

Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Macedonia have all seen protests, rhetoric and even political statements against refugees, often using extreme language or imagery. Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity remain strong in those countries, so the visit to Lesbos by the pope and Bartholomew I, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, might sway many hearts.

Criticism of the pope’s visit also overlooks how important the visit was to the refugees themselves. Some wept and the pontiff greeted 250 individually. For those who have lost so much, who have risked everything most precious to them, that comfort of having their hardship understood must have mattered a great deal. Hope and empathy are important. That Pope Francis delivered them to some of the most desperate people should be celebrated.