While Europe raises barbed wire fences, closes the borders and, owing to a billion-euro political deal with Turkey, sends back its refugees, the “humanitarian offensive” undertaken by Christian Church leaders is taking off. The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece was the first to release the news: next week Pope Francis, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and His Beatitude Hieronymos, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece will meet in Lesvos, the island in the Aegean Sea that over the past months has become the compulsory destination of thousands of refugees fleeing from countries at war, from the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East.
The announcement of the meeting between the three Christian leaders couldn’t have been announced at a more significant moment. In fact, the migrant repatriation plan to Turkey, involving the Greek islands of Lesvos and Chios, enshrined in the Agreement signed on 18 March between Brussels and Ankara, came into effect on April 4. The deal has been strongly criticized by associations and NGOs, and it must have deeply disturbed also the European Christian Churches that decided to put aside old rivalries, century-old doctrinal disagreements and divisions, before the humanitarian tragedy of thousands of men, women and especially children who are desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean sea or the Balkan route in order to reach Europe.
The meeting of the three Christian leaders on the island of Lesvos – made known the Orthodox Church of Greece – will last one day, it will not be an official visit but will have a “humanitarian and symbolic” character.
The date has not yet been made official: probably April 14 or 15. The purpose of the initiative – states the Greek Declaration – is “to contribute to raising the awareness of the international community for an immediate cessation of hostilities in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East that are severely affecting the Christian communities.”
The Churches want to open the eyes of Europe on the “urgent, major humanitarian problem involving desperate refugees seeking a better future in the European continent.”
In order to give a strong signal of the unity of the Orthodox Churches – important also in view of the pan-Orthodox Synod scheduled to take place in Crete in late June – alongside His Beatitude Hieronymos in Lesvos there will also be the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. He too, – is declared in a statement released by the Phanar – is following with “concern” the “development of the conflicts in the Middle East region”; “the persecution of Christians”, and “the flow of refugees ” along the routes leading to Europe. Reportedly, the Patriarch has addressed the subject with Pope Francis in a letter written on March 30.
Bartholomew said he hopes that the visit to the Greek island of Lesvos may prompt “the competent authorities” to promote initiatives for the protection of the Christian communities and find the “just solutions” to the refugees’ situation.
Pope Francis is an ideal partner for major aspirations such as these. He has made appeals in favour of the refugees on several occasions, in the belief that “how we deal with them is a test of our humanity, our respect for human dignity, and above all our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need.” (Uganda, 2015).
Pope Francis made the first pastoral trip of his pontificate to the island of Lampedusa, on July 8 2013. That was when he first spoke out against the “globalization of indifference.” His latest sign of closeness to the migrants was on Holy Thursday, March 24, when he visited a reception centre for asylum seekers at the Cara of Castelnuovo di Porto.
In Lesvos Pope Francis will not be alone. Two important leaders of the Orthodox world will be at his side. It’s the essence of an ecumenism that by opening up to the great challenges of history, to the pains and wounds that afflict humanity, finds a fertile ground of encounter and dialogue. The problems of modern societies are too severe to remain closed in their own disputes. The Churches have understood this. And they have understood that the time has come to unite their voices to awaken the consciences, succeeding where politics fails, jointly proclaiming to the world the Gospel of life and of Mercy.