Pope Francis headed Friday to Marseille for a two-day visit focused on the Mediterranean and migration, and brought a message of tolerance amid bitter debate over how Europe should handle asylum seekers.
The desperate circumstances that cause many people to leave their homes for a new life, and the risks they take to do so, became an important theme of the 86-year-old’s decade. head of the worldwide Catholic Church.
But his visit to the French port city, to participate in a meeting of bishops and young Catholics in the Mediterranean area, put him at the center of a political storm.
The influx of boat migrants arriving from North Africa on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week has sparked outrage in Italy and beyond.
The European Union pledged more aid for Rome while France, amid a dispute over a draft law governing migrant arrivals there, said it would not accept anyone from Lampedusa.
Migration “represents a challenge that is not easy, as we have also seen from the news in recent days, but must be faced together”, Francis said at the Vatican on Sunday.
“It is important for the future of all, which can be prosperous only if it is built on fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in the first place.”
The pope, who prefers to visit small Catholic communities around the world, made it clear that his trip was not to France but specifically to Marseille.
He became the first pope in 500 years to visit the city, a historic gateway for immigrants and also home to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Europe, many of which are plagued by drug trafficking.
Ahead of his 44th trip abroad, and in increasingly frail health, Francis admitted this month that papal trips are not as easy as they used to be.
He had hernia surgery in June, less than two years after colon surgery, and often uses a wheelchair because of troublesome knees.
Meeting the pilgrims
The pope’s plane landed at 1415 GMT, and he will meet at the airport with French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.
He will head to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a symbolic monument overlooking the city, for a prayer with local clergy on Friday afternoon.
That will be followed by a moment of reflection with representatives of other religions in front of a memorial to sailors and migrants lost at sea.
The United Nations estimates that more than 28,000 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean have gone missing since 2014.
On Saturday morning, the pope will participate in the closing session of the “Mediterranean Meetings” event.
As well as migration, it will cover issues such as economic inequality and climate change – also themes close to the pope’s heart.
Then he will be taken in his popemobile through the city, where tens of thousands of pilgrims are expected for the visit, despite the decline of Catholicism in France.
For Joseph Achji, a 25-year-old Syrian Christian from Aleppo, the pope’s visit to Marseille was an “opportunity of a lifetime”.
He told AFP he was “excited to see the pope” and meet other young people.
On Saturday afternoon, Francis will lead a mass at the Vélodrome stadium, with 57,000 people expected, including French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron’s decision to attend has sparked controversy among leftist politicians in the officially secular country.
Francky Domingo, who runs a migrant association in Marseille, said he hoped the visit would “give a little hope” and “ease tensions at the political level”.
“Marseille is a cosmopolitan city, multicultural, multi-faith,” he told AFP, but faced “great difficulties”.