NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Pope Francis on Friday denounced the “culture of indifference” that the West shows migrants as the Vatican confirmed that at least a dozen asylum-seekers would be transferred from Cyprus to Italy in a gesture of solidarity with European countries that have received a disproportionate share of would-be refugees.
The transfer, formally announced on the second day of Francis' visit to Cyprus, came on the eve of his scheduled arrival in Greece, from where he brought a dozen Syrian Muslim refugees home with him aboard the papal plane in 2016.
The Vatican said the Rome-based Sant’Egidio Community, working with governments, had arranged to bring the asylum-seekers from Cyprus to Italy in the coming weeks. It said 12 people would be initially 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 migrants and refugees.
The Vatican didn't immediately respond when asked about the discrepancy, though presumably more could be relocated at a later date since Sant'Egidio for years has run “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 asylum-seekers in total.
Francis himself didn't confirm the initiative during a Friday evening prayer service with migrants in the Church of the Holy Cross in Nicosia, the Mediterranean island nation's capital. But he made it clear that countries had a moral obligation to accept those who flee war, hatred and oppression — often to face barbed wire at borders before they are rejected and returned.
“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.”
“This is a generous island, but it can't do everything because the number of people who arrive is superior to the possibility to insert, integrate and promote them," in Cypriot society, he said.
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.
“Today, we wonder how that happened (in the past), but this is happening to our brothers and sisters today, on nearby coasts,” he said.
Others, he said, never make it and die at sea.
The global indifference, he said, is “a serious illness and there's no antibiotic for it. We have to go against this vice of getting used to these tragedies."
Among those attending Francis’ service was David Henry Jr., 28, who is from Nigeria.
“If I could see him now, I’d just ask him to pray for me and to help because now I don’t have anything,” Henry said. “I’m starting my life over again.”
Cyprus has seen such a spike in migrant and refugee arrivals this year — a 38% increase in the first 10 months compared with all of last year — that it asked the European Union's executive commission to let it stop processing asylum claims. It is currently processing more claims per capita than any other EU nation.
Around 80% of all asylum-seekers in Cyprus first arrive in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and then cross the ethnically divided island's 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 Cyprus 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 to visit a new refugee camp.
Cyprus’ interior ministry said two Cameroonian migrants, who have been stuck in the U.N. buffer zone — 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,” an Interior Ministry statement said.