Pope Francis traveled to Greece on Saturday for a brief but 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 on the Greek island of Lesbos shortly after 10 a.m., some 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met him on the tarmac, along with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians and the archbishop of Athens, who is the head of the Church of Greece.
The three Christian leaders, officially divided over a 1,000-year schism, will spend nearly an hour Saturday greeting some 250 refugees stuck on 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 five-hour 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.
Hours before Francis arrived, the European border patrol agency Frontex intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of Lesbos. The refugees were detained and brought to shore in the main port of Mytilene.
Also ahead of the visit, municipal crews scrubbed the walls of Mytilene after graffiti reading "Papa Don't Preach" was sprayed in black at several points on the seafront in Mytilene. A handful of senior Orthodox clergy in Greece have been highly critical of Francis' trip, though the protests are nothing compared to the protests that greeted St. John Paul II's visit in 2001.
The wreath-tossing ceremony scheduled for later Saturday is a gesture Francis first made when he visited the Italian island of Lampedusa in the summer of 2013, his first trip outside Rome as pope, after a dozen migrants died trying to reach the southern tip of Europe. He made a similar gesture more recently at the U.S.-Mexican border, laying a bouquet of flowers next to a large crucifix at the Ciudad Juarez border crossing in memory of migrants who died trying to reach the U.S.
"He is slightly provocative," said George Demacopoulos, chair of Orthodox Christian studies at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. Citing Francis' Mexico border visit in February, in the heat of a U.S. presidential campaign where illegal immigration took center stage, he added: "He is within his purview to do so, but that was a provocative move."
The Vatican insists Saturday's visit is purely humanitarian and religious in nature, not political or a "direct" criticism of the EU plan.
But spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters that Francis' position on Europe's "moral obligation" to welcome refugees is well-known, and that the EU-Turkey deportation deal certainly has "consequences on the situation of the people involved."