Pope Francis Visits Greek Island Lesbos

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pope Francis surprised the world again today. He took 12 Syrian refugees, reportedly members of three families, on his plane back to Rome after visiting migrants on Lesbos. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is there and joins us now. Sylvia, thanks very much for being with us.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What do we know about these 12 people?

POGGIOLI: What we know is simply is what you just said - three Syrian families, 12 people in all, including six children. Two of the families are from Damascus. The third family is from an area that has been occupied by ISIS, and their home has been bombed. This is according to the official Vatican statement, which said that the pope wanted to make a gesture of welcome to refugees. The Vatican will take responsibility for the families, but the initial hospitality will be offered by the Catholic Sant'Egidio community.

It was not expected, but this - in a joint project, Sant'Egidio and Italian Protestant churches have been providing what are called humanitarian quarters this year. They've been bringing several refugee families to Italy where they will apply for political asylum. So we presume this will be the same process for these three Syrian families.

SIMON: I didn't see even any speculation that the pope might do this - total surprise?

POGGIOLI: Well, not really. He is - (laughter) he's getting - he's making us get used to his surprises. In a tweet before he left, he said refugees are not numbers. They are people who have faces, names and stories and need to be treated as such. And so he was true to his word. He brought some of these real faces and real names back home with him.

SIMON: The pope's visit, of course, was brought about by that controversial deal the European Union reached last month with Turkey, under which migrants who arrive on Greek islands will be sent back to Turkey if they don't get political asylum in Greece. Does this help the pope to make some point about the Vatican's position on that?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, it's - the Vatican has been extremely critical of that deal. One of the most outspoken officials has been a cardinal who's the head of the pontifical council for migrants, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio. He compared the European Union to Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the problem and treating migrants like damaged goods to be returned to sender. Now, the Vatican spokesman has been insisting that this is a purely humanitarian visit, not political. And it was not meant to be a direct criticism of the EU-Turkey deal.

But Francis has in the past told Europe it has a moral obligation to welcome refugees. So with this gesture of his, he's certainly setting an example, indirectly or directly, telling him exactly what he thinks about the EU-Turkey deal.

SIMON: And there's one more interfaith gesture the pope made on this trip, too, wasn't there?

POGGIOLI: Oh, this, the fact that he was together with the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church and the leader of the Greek Orthodox church, is a sign of incredibly improving relations between the two branches of Christianity, which split in a schism almost 1,000 years ago. It's too soon to say whether they'll resolve all their theological differences, which are centuries old. But it's clear that on contemporary global issues, the two churches are speaking more and more with a unified voice.

SIMON: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli on Lesbos, thanks so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.