Vatican takes in 12 migrants as pope denounces indifference

Published: December 3, 2021 12:30 PM EST
Pope Francis leads a holy mass at GSP stadium in Nicosia, Cyprus, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Francis is on a five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece by drawing attention once again to his call for Europe to welcome migrants. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis on Friday denounced the “indifference” that the West shows migrants as the Vatican confirmed at least a dozen asylum-seekers would be transferred from Cyprus to Italy in a gesture of solidarity with countries that have borne the brunt of receiving would-be refugees.

The Vatican said the Rome-based Sant’Egidio Community, working with governments, had arranged to bring the would-be refugees from the Mediterranean island nation to Italy in the coming weeks, though it only said 12 would be transferred. Earlier, the Cypriot Interior Ministry had thanked Francis and the Holy See for the initiative to relocate 50 people, saying it was a recognition of Cyprus’ inability to continue to absorb an influx of migrants.

The Vatican didn’t immediately respond when asked about the discrepancy, though presumably more could eventually be transferred since Sant’Egidio for years has run relocation and “humanitarian corridor” services to bring migrants to Italy legally.

Cyprus’ Interior Minister Nicos Nouris insisted to the Associated Press that arrangements had been made to transfer 50 migrants in total.

Francis himself didn’t confirm the initiative during a Friday evening prayer service with migrants on his second day in Cyprus. But he made it clear that countries had a moral obligation to accept those who are fleeing war, hatred and oppression — often to find themselves rejected, returned or coming face to face with barbed wire fencing.

“He who comes asking for freedom, bread, help, fraternity and joy, who is fleeing hatred, finds himself in front of a hatred which is called barbed wire,” Francis told the migrants, who took up most of the pews in the Nicosia church. “May the Lord awaken the conscience of all of us in front of all these things. We cannot be silent and look away at this culture of indifference.”

Francis referred to the problems Cyprus was undergoing, saying he recognized that governments can’t take in everyone and that “we have to understand the limits.”

But he also voiced disgust at how the “developed civilizations of the West” refuse to accept migrants or send them back to countries where they would be “confined, tortured and enslaved.”

It was a reference to the migrant crisis at the European Union’s border in Poland with Belarus, as well as the conditions in Libyan compounds for refugees who are sent back. Francis called them “lagers” similar to Nazi and Stalin-era detention camps.

Cyprus has seen such a spike in migrant arrivals this year — a 38% increase in the first 10 months compared with all of last year — that it has formally asked the European Commission to let it stop processing asylum claims altogether. It is currently processing more claims per capita than any other European Union nation.

Around 80% of all migrants in Cyprus first arrive in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and then cross the porous U.N. buffer zone to seek asylum in the internationally recognized south, which is a member of the EU. The Cypriot government claims that Turkey systematically sends asylum-seekers to the north so that they then pressure the island’s southern government.

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in the north.

In a statement, the Vatican said it would help out “as a sign of the Holy Father’s concern for families and migrant people.” It said Francis’ Cyprus trip “will be accompanied in the coming weeks by a humanitarian gesture of welcoming about 12 refugees, some of whom the pope greeted this evening at the end of the ecumenical prayer meeting with migrants.”

Francis is expected to echo the call for migrant welcome when he returns Sunday to Lesbos, Greece, where he made headlines in 2016 when he brought a dozen Syrian refugees home with him aboard the papal plane. The Cyprus migrants are expected to be relocated to Italy at a later date.

Cyprus’ interior ministry said two Cameroonian migrants, who have been stuck in the U.N. buffer zone dividing Cyprus — known as the Green Line — for six months, would be among the 50 who would be relocated thanks to the intervention of the pope.

“The Vatican’s symbolic gesture comes as recognition of the difficulties that Cyprus faces with the continuously increasing influx of migrants who irregularly cross the Green Line toward the free areas, arriving through the occupied areas from Turkey which systematically instrumentalizes the migration issue against Cyprus,” the statement said.