Pope leaving Lesbos, Greece, with 12 refugees

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MYTILENE, Greece — The Vatican has confirmed that 12 Syrian refugees, all of them Muslim, are traveling with the pope back to Italy from Greece.

The three families, including six children, met with Francis on the tarmac on the island of Lesbos and boarded the plane.

The Vatican will take responsibility for supporting the families. But the Catholic Sant’Egidio community will take care of getting them settled initially.

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3:00 p.m.

Some 200 protesters have been stopped about 100 meters (109 yards) from where the heads of the Catholic and Orthodox churches were holding a prayer ceremony at the Mytilene port on the Greek island of Lesbos.

The protesters were chanting “No Borders, No Nation. Stop Deportation” as Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos II held a prayer ceremony and tossed floral wreaths into the sea in memory of the refugees and migrants who died trying to reach Europe.

Moments earlier, police detained a woman attempting to display a banner inside the enclosure of the crowd gathered to watch the ceremony. As she was being led away, the woman said she was a volunteer working in Lesbos on the refugee issue.

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2:50 p.m.

A person on the Greek island of Lesbos says Pope Francis is bringing a dozen refugees with him on his flight back to Italy.

The person, who is involved in the pope’s trip to Lesbos, refused to be identified further because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

He confirmed a report on Greek television which first revealed the plan Saturday morning.

It wasn’t immediately clear which legal process was at play, but the Catholic Sant’Egidio Community has begun a program to bring deserving refugees to Italy with humanitarian visas issued by the Italian government.

—By Elena Becatoros in Athens and Nicole Winfield in Rome

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2:40 p.m.

The pope and the leaders of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the Church of Greece have conducted a prayer ceremony for refugees at the Lesbos port of Mytilene.

Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop Ieronymos II prayed for the many men, women and children who lost their lives in the Aegean Sea as they attempted the short but dangerous journey from Turkey in overloaded and unseaworthy boats.

The three led a minute of silence in front of a crowd of hundreds of people at the port, before tossing a floral wreath each into the sea in memory of those who perished.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have passed through Mytilene on their perilous journeys from Turkey toward Europe.

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2:30 p.m.

Pope Francis says he understands European concerns about the influx of refugees but says the world must remember that refugees are human beings with faces, names and stories and deserve to have their basic human rights respected.

In a ceremony at the port in Lesbos on Saturday, Francis thanked the residents of Greece for welcoming in thousands of refugees and for showing solidarity and humanity toward the world’s most desperate.

He said “God will repay this generosity and that of other surrounding nations who from the beginning have welcomed with great openness the large number of people forced to migrate.”

He said the world needs bridges, not barriers or walls. He said “Barriers create divisions instead of promoting the true progress of peoples, and divisions sooner or later lead to confrontations.”

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1:45 p.m.

The pope and the leaders of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the Church of Greece have signed a joint declaration calling on the international community to make the protection of human lives a priority and to extend temporary asylum to those in need.

Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop Ieronymos II signed the joint declaration Saturday during an emotional and highly political visit to the Moria migrant detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos.

The declaration also called on political leaders “to employ every means to ensure that individuals and communities, including Christians, remain in their homelands and enjoy the fundamental right to live in peace and security.”

It said the three religious leaders’ meeting was “meant to help bring courage and hope to those seeking refuge and to all those who welcome and assist them.”

Lesbos has seen hundreds of thousands of people reach its shores trying to get to Europe.

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1:10 p.m.

The spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians has told migrants in a detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos that the world will be judged by how it has treated them.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I also condemned the “hard-heartedness” that saw borders closed to the migrants.

Bartholomew, Pope Francis and the head of the Church of Greece are in Lesbos on a historic visit to highlight the plight of refugees. It comes after a controversial European Union-Turkey agreement under which those arriving on Greek islands after March 20 must be detained and returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum.

“We have traveled here to tell you that we care. We have traveled here because the world has not forgotten you,” Bartholomew said, adding that “we have wept as we watched the Mediterranean Sea becoming a burial ground for your loved ones.”

He praised the “sympathy and sensitivity” of Greek island residents who welcomed the refugees, but stressed migration isn’t an issue for “the Middle East and Northern Africa, for Europe and Greece. It is an issue for the world.”

“The world will be judged by the way it has treated you. And we will all be accountable for the way we respond to the crisis and conflict in the regions that you come from,” he said.

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1:00 p.m.

Pope Francis is imploring European leaders to respond to the continent’s migrant crisis “in a way that is worthy of our common humanity” and to come to the aid of refugees in a spirit of fraternity and solidarity.

Francis was speaking to migrants at the Moria refugee center on the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday. The center has been turned into a detention center for refugees slated for deportation under the European Union’s controversial deal to send them back to Turkey.

In his remarks, Francis said he wanted the refugees to know they’re not alone and to not lose hope. He said he wanted to visit them to hear their stories and to bring the world’s attention to their plight.

He said: “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

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12:55 p.m.

The head of the Church of Greece says the religious leaders of Catholicism and Orthodoxy are uniting their voices to condemn the uprooting of people that turns them into refugees, and the “depreciation” of them as human beings.

The Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos II spoke Saturday during a visit to a migrant detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos along with Pope Francis and the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

“Unfortunately it is not the first time we denounce the politics that have brought these people to this impasse,” Ieronymos said. “We will act however, until the aberration and depreciation of the human person has stopped.”

Ieronymos was clear in his criticism of the European response to the refugee crisis, which has resulted in a deal with Turkey whereby new arrivals to Greek islands are sent back to Turkey.

“Only those who see the eyes of those small children that we met at the refugee camps will be able to immediately recognize, in its entirety, the ‘bankruptcy’ of humanity and solidarity that Europe has shown these last few years to these, and not only these, people,” he said.

He closed his speech by calling on the United Nations to address “this tragic situation that we are living.”

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12:00 p.m.

Some migrants were weeping as they met with Pope Francis during an emotional visit to the Moria detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos.

One man wept uncontrollably and wailed as he knelt down before Francis on Saturday and said: “Thank you, God. Thank you! Please Father, bless me!”

Children offered Francis drawings and the pope praised one little girl for her artwork, saying “Bravo. Bravo.” Then as he handed it off to his staff he stressed: “Don’t fold it. I want it on my desk.”

As he walked by them, shaking hands with the men and bowing to the women, the refugees shouted out their homelands: “Afghanistan.” ”Syria.”

One little boy ducked his head through a fence to kiss Francis’ ring.

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11:45 a.m.

A group of unaccompanied minors has greeted Pope Francis and the leaders of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the Church of Greece as they arrived at the Moria migrant detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos.

The teenage boys who have made the perilous journeys from their homelands to Greece alone were lined up at the entrance, shaking the religious leaders’ hands. Some of them were holding a Syrian flag.

The three leaders then moved on to greet women and young children who stood behind a low metal barrier. The pope, patriarch and archbishop shook their hands and patted some of the children on the cheek, while some of the gathered refugees snapped pictures of the pontiff on mobile phones.

The religious leaders’ visit to the island, which has seen the majority of the arrivals of migrants heading into Europe, is a highly symbolic one. It comes shortly after the European Union began deporting new arrivals back to Turkey under a controversial deal meant to stem the refugee flow.

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11:25 a.m.

Dozens of refugees who won’t be among the lucky ones selected to meet Pope Francis on the Greek island Lesbos have gathered holding makeshift banners, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.

Francis and the leaders of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the Church of Greece were heading Saturday to a refugee center on the island which has been converted into a detention center as part of a controversial European Union-Turkey deal. There they will meet with refugees and lunch with some of them.

Those who were not part of the selected group gathered peacefully in the camp, holding aloft signs with slogans such as “Pope you are our hope,” ”please save Yazidi people,” ”we are also human,” and “Welcome Pope Francis”.

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11:20 a.m.

Greek state television ERT reports Pope Francis has apparently offered to take 10 refugees back to Italy with him when he departs the Greek island of Lesbos after a historic visit.

ERT says it appears eight Syrians and two Afghans will be offered passage Saturday. The inclusion of the latter would be a highly symbolic move at a time when Europe has stopped automatically considering Afghans to be refugees and doesn’t include them among the nationalities whose asylum applications are approved.

The state television channel didn’t cite a source for the information. Asked about the report, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi told The Associated Press: “I have nothing to say at this time.”

Asked if he would have an update later, Lombardi said: “Each moment has its significance.”

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10:50 a.m.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says Pope Francis’ visit to the Greek island of Lesbos is a historic event and an important opportunity to highlight the need to find a legal route into Europe for those fleeing conflict.

Tsipras says he is proud of the Greek people for welcoming refugees and other migrants at a time when they are suffering under austerity measures imposed on Greece by the country’s international lenders.

“I am proud of this, particularly at a time when some of our partners — even in the name of Christian Europe — were erecting walls and fences to prevent defenseless people from seeking a better life. That is why I consider that your visit is historic and important,” Tsipras told Francis shortly after his arrival at the airport Saturday.

He said the pope’s visit “is a very important opportunity to show the need to stop the war, the taking advantage of people and to give the possibility of a legal route for these people who leave their homes and search for a better future in Europe.”

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10:30 a.m.

Pope Francis has been greeted on the Greek island of Lesbos by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the leaders of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the Church of Greece.

Tsipras greeted Francis as he descended the stairs from the plane Saturday. He was followed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and the Archbishop of Athens and all Greece Ieronymos, who both greeted the pope with a kiss on each cheek before the Greek and Italian national anthems were played. The head of Lesbos’ tiny Catholic community was also present.

The religious leaders’ visit to the island, which has seen the majority of the arrivals of migrants heading into Europe, is a highly symbolic one. It comes shortly after the European Union began deporting new arrivals back to Turkey under a controversial deal meant to stem the refugee flow.

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10:10 a.m.

Pope Francis has arrived in Greece for a provocative visit to meet with refugees at a detention center as the European Union implements a controversial plan to deport them back to Turkey.

Francis’ Alitalia charter touched down at the airport in Mytilene shortly after 10 a.m., some 20 minutes ahead of time.

Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians will spend nearly an hour Saturday greeting some 250 refugees stuck on the Greek island of Lesbos. They will lunch with eight of them to hear their stories of fleeing war, conflict and poverty and their hopes for a better life in Europe. And then they will pray together, tossing a floral wreath into the sea in memory of those who didn’t make it.

The visit is meant to highlight the plight of refugees, thank the Greek people who have welcomed them in, and to show a united Christian response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding.

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10:00 a.m.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is meeting with the leaders of the Church of Greece and the world’s Orthodox Christians at the airport on the island of Lesbos shortly before the arrival of Pope Francis for a visit that will highlight the plight of refugees.

Tsipras says Greece is currently hosting more than 50,000 refugees and migrants and is trying to provide them with good living conditions despite the difficulties. Most of those who have entered Greece from Turkey have done so through Lesbos, which has seen hundreds of thousands of people arrive on its shores in the past year.

Francis and the two Orthodox leaders are to visit refugees and migrants being held in a detention center pending deportation and to throw floral wreaths into the sea in memory of those who died making the journey.

Under a controversial European Union-Turkey deal meant to reduce the flow of refugees into Europe, those arriving on Greek islands after March 20 are returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

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09:50 a.m.

Municipal crews are scrubbing walls in the capital and main port of the island of Lesbos after graffiti was sprayed overnight in places where Pope Francis will speak.

The crews removed the words “Papa Don’t Preach” sprayed in black at several points on the seafront in Mytilene.

Francis will visit refugees in Lesbos Saturday to highlight their plight. He will be joined by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II, head of the Church of Greece.

The joint trip comes shortly after the start of a controversial European Union-Turkey deal under which any migrant arriving on Greek islands after March 20 will be detained and returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

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09:35 a.m.

The European border patrol agency Frontex has intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos, three hours before Pope Francis was to land on the island for a visit highlighting the plight of refugees.

The refugees were detained and brought to shore Saturday in the port of Mytilene. Later in the day, the pope, along with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II, head of the Church of Greece, will toss floral wreaths into the sea nearby in memory of migrants who have died making the same journey.

Under a controversial European Union-Turkey deal that came into effect March 20, all those arriving on Greek islands from that date on are detained and deported back to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.