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Pope Francis makes provocative trip to Greece to meet migrants at detention center

Pope Francis (L) waves next to Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II upon his arrival at the airport of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16, 2016.
Louisa Gouliamaki | AFP | Getty Images
Pope Francis (L) waves next to Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II upon his arrival at the airport of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16, 2016.

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."

The Vatican official in charge of migrants, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, was even more explicit, saying the EU-Turkey plan essentially treats migrants as merchandise that can be traded back and forth and doesn't recognize their inherent dignity as human beings.

The March 18 deal stipulates that anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands on or after March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. For every Syrian sent back, the EU will take another Syrian directly from Turkey for resettlement in Europe. In return, Turkey was granted concessions including billions of euros to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there, and a speeding up of its stalled accession talks with the EU.

Human rights groups have denounced the deal as an abdication of Europe's obligations to grant protection to asylum-seekers.

The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of refugees, the poor and downtrodden the focus of his ministry as pope, denouncing the "globalization of indifference" that the world shows the less fortunate.

Aside from the inherently political nature of the trip, it also has a significant religious dimension.

Lombardi said the ecumenical significance of a meeting between Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the head of the Church of Greece, Athens Archbishop Ieronymos II was "obvious." He credited Greece's politicians with their willingness to let the religious leaders take center stage as an "appreciated" gesture of discretion.