Pope Francis calls on European countries to welcome migrants

MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Pope Francis called on French President Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders to open their ports to people fleeing hardship and poverty, emphasizing on Saturday that the continent is not facing a “migration emergency” but a long-term one Reality that governments must deal with humanely.

For a second day in a row In the French port city of Marseille, Francis took aim at European countries that used “alarmist propaganda” to justify closing their doors to migrants, seeking to shame them and respond with charity instead. He called for migrants to have a legal path to citizenship and for the Mediterranean, which so many cross to reach Europe, to be a beacon of hope rather than a graveyard of despair.

The Mediterranean, Francis told Macron and a gathering of regional bishops, “cries out for justice, with its coasts that radiate wealth, consumerism and waste on the one hand, while on the other there is poverty and instability.”

Pope Francis is greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron upon his arrival for the papal closing session "Rencontres Mediterraneanennes" Meeting at the Palais du Pharo in Marseille, France, Saturday September 23, 2023.
Pope Francis is greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron upon his arrival for the closing session of the “Rencontres Mediterraneennes” meeting at the Palais du Pharo in Marseille, France, Saturday, September 23, 2023.

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

The pope’s visit to the southern French city, which drew an estimated 150,000 well-wishers on Saturday, comes at a time when Italy’s far-right government has responded to a new wave of arriving migrants with threats organize a naval blockade of Tunisia and increase returns. For its part, the French government has increased patrols on the southern border to prevent migrants from crossing in Italy.

After the end of the bishops’ meeting, Macron and Francis met for a private half-hour meeting. They spoke about migration issues and a range of other issues, the French presidency said, adding that both leaders had a “common will” to find humane solutions to the situation.

France is a “receiving country” for migrants – especially asylum seekers – and supports European solidarity policies, including by financing and combating human trafficking, the French presidency said. The Vatican did not provide an announcement of the meeting.

Macron’s centrist government has taken a tougher line on migration and security issues after facing criticism from French conservatives and the far right. With EU Parliament elections due next year, Macron is pushing for the EU to strengthen its external borders and be more efficient in deporting people denied entry.

Macron greeted Francis on a windswept promenade overlooking Marseille’s old port and helped him walk to the Palais du Pharo for the meeting of Mediterranean bishops. With his wife at his side, the French leader listened as a young Italian volunteer working in Greece and the bishop of Tirana, Albania, who fled to Italy during Albania’s communist rule, spoke of the welcome they received abroad was received.

“May we be moved by the stories of so many of our unfortunate brothers and sisters who have the right to emigrate and not to emigrate, and not to sink into indifference,” Francis said. “Faced with the terrible scourge of human exploitation, the solution lies not in denial, but in ensuring a sufficient number of legal and regular accesses, according to the possibilities of each individual.”

Francis’ two-day trip was planned months ago, but comes at a time of mass migration to Europe making headlines once again. Nearly 7,000 migrants who boarded smugglers’ boats in Tunisia landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa within a day last week, briefly surpassing the population there.

Still, Francis said talk of a “migration emergency” only fueled “alarmist propaganda” and stoked people’s fears.

“Those who risk their lives at sea are not invading, they are looking for welcome, for life,” he said. “As far as the emergency is concerned, the phenomenon of migration is not so much a short-term urgency, which is always good to fuel alarmist propaganda, but a reality of our times.”

In addition to Macron, the Pope’s audience on Saturday also included European Commission Vice President Margarítis Schinás, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde and French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who said France would not accept any new migrants from Lampedusa.

French President and First Lady Brigitte Macron later attended Francis’ final Mass at the Marseille Velodrome, which was attended by an estimated 50,000 people and where a huge pope’s banner was hoisted from the stands. The Vatican, citing local organizers, reported that 100,000 more people lined Marseille’s central Avenue du Prado to cheer him as his Popemobile drove by.

The first Latin American pope in history has made the plight of migrants a priority of his 10-year pontificate. On his first trip as pope, he traveled to Lampedusa to honor migrants who drowned while trying to cross the sea.

He has celebrated Mass ever since the border between the USA and Mexicomet with Myanmars Rohingya refugees As a visible sign of his commitment, he brought twelve Syrian Muslims home on his plane after visiting a refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece.

Migrants and their advocates living in Marseille, which has a long tradition of multicultural hospitality, said Francis’ call for charity and pathways to citizenship gave them hope that at least someone in Europe understood their plight.

“It’s a very nice opportunity for us,” said Francky Domingo, who is part of a Marseille-based association that represents migrants seeking official identification documents. “We definitely want the Pope to be our spokesman for politicians, because European migration policy is very, very repressive for us migrants.”

Francois Thomas, head of sea rescue organization SOS Mediterranee, said he hoped Francis’ words would be heard in European capitals.

“You don’t let people drown in the Mediterranean. That is not possible,” said Thomas at the memorial for migrants who died at sea in Marseille.

In his remarks, Francis also reiterated his opposition to euthanasia, which he has long denounced as a symptom of a “throwaway culture” that treats the elderly and infirm as expendable. He described euthanasia as a “social evil” and criticized advocates of euthanasia as a “false pretext for a supposedly dignified and ‘sweet’ death that is ‘saltier’ than the water of the sea.”

The issue is current in France, where Macron is expected to present a bill in the coming weeks that would legalize end-of-life options in France. French media reported that he had delayed submitting the measure until after the Pope’s visit so as not to push the sensitive issue into the background.

No details of the government’s proposal have been released, but several options are being considered, including legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia for adult patients with terminal illnesses under strict conditions that guarantee their free and informed consent.

The French presidency said Francis and Macron discussed the issue during their bilateral meeting, but did not go into details.

Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the AP Cooperation with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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