Pope Francis spoke emotionally on Sunday of his meeting a day earlier with migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos, which culminated with him taking 12 Syrians -- all Muslims -- from three families back to the Vatican.
Addressing worshippers at his weekly Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square, the 79-year-old pontiff, who is himself the son of Italian immigrants in Argentina, related his visit to a migrant processing centre where around 3,000 people are being held.
“We greeted around 300 of them, one by one,” said Francis, who was accompanied on his visit by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens.
“There were so many children. Some of these children witnessed their parents and friends dying, drowned at sea.
“I saw such suffering,” he said, visibly moved.
The Roman Catholic leader then went on to tell of one particular case, “that of a young man, who was not even 40”.
“I met him yesterday with his two sons. He was Muslim and told me he had married a Christian, (and that) they loved and respected each other.”
But the woman fell victim to Islamist radicals, he said.
“She had her throat slit by terrorists because she would not renounce Christ and abandon her faith,” said Francis, calling her a “martyr”.
As for her grieving spouse, he said sorrowfully, “this man was crying so much”.
The pope’s visit to Lesbos, one of the main ports of arrival for people fleeing war, poverty and persecution in the Middle East and Asia, was seen as a lesson in solidarity for Europe, where the doors to migrants are progressively being slammed shut.
Declaring “we are all migrants”, Francis used his trip to emphasise that the arrivals were not mere numbers, but people with “faces, names and individual stories.”
“All refugees are children of God,” Francis said on the flight back to Rome referring to their religion, adding that though his gesture was “a drop in the ocean” he hoped “the ocean will never be the same again”.
Last year, the pope had appealed to every Catholic diocese in Europe to take in a refugee family -- an appeal that fell on deaf ears in most parts of the continent.
Migrant arrivals in Greece have drastically fallen since Turkey agreed to take back all irregular migrants landing on the Greek islands in return for billions in EU cash and other concessions.
Over 1.1 million people have crossed clandestinely from Turkey to Greece since the start of 2015, with hundreds drowning en route.