Pope Francis flies into migrant row with trip to Marseille

Pope Francis flies into migrant row with trip to Marseille
Pope Francis flies into migrant row with trip to Marseille

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Pope Francis visits Marseille amid a political storm over migration in the Mediterranean. — AFP pic

VATICAN CITY, Holy See, Sept 22 — Pope Francis heads Friday to Marseille for a two-day visit focused on the Mediterranean and migration, bringing a message of tolerance amid bitter debate over how Europe manages asylum seekers.

The desperate conditions that cause many people to leave their homes for a new life, and the risks they take to do so, have been a key theme in the 86-year-old's decade as head of the worldwide Catholic Church.

But his visit to the French port city, to take part in a meeting of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops and young people, puts him at the centre of a political storm.

A surge in migrant boats arriving from North Africa on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week triggered outrage both in Italy and beyond.

The European Union promised more help for Rome while France, amid wrangling over a draft law governing migrant arrivals there, said it would not accept anyone from Lampedusa.

Migration "represents a challenge that is not easy... but which must be faced together", Francis said at the Vatican on Sunday.

"It is essential for the future of all, which will be prosperous only if it is built on fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in first place."

The pope, who prefers to visit small Catholic communities around the world, has made clear that his trip is not to France but specifically Marseille.

He becomes the first pope in 500 years to visit the city, a gateway for immigrants and also home to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe, many of which are plagued by drug trafficking.

Parts of the city were decked out Friday in the yellow and white colours of the Vatican, particularly on the main Avenue du Prado, through which the pope will travel in his popemobile on Saturday.

Regional newspaper La Provence welcomed his arrival with the headline "Habemus papam", the famous Latin phrase meaning "We have a pope!" used on the election of a pontiff.

Ahead of what will be his 44th overseas trip, and in increasingly fragile health, Francis admitted this month that papal voyages were not as easy as they used to be.

He underwent hernia surgery in June, less than two years after having colon surgery, and routinely uses a wheelchair due to a troublesome knee.

Meeting pilgrims

The pope's plane is due to land at 1415 GMT, and he will be met at the airport by 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 meditation with representatives of other religions in front of a memorial to sailors and migrants lost at sea.

The United Nations estimates more than 28,000 migrants who tried to cross the Mediterranean have gone missing since 2014.

On Saturday morning, the pope will take part 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.

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 originally from Aleppo, the pope's visit to Marseille is a "chance of a lifetime".

On Saturday afternoon, Francis will lead a mass in the Velodrome stadium, with 57,000 people expected, including French President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron's decision to attend has sparked controversy among left-wing politicians in the officially secular country.

Some right-wing politicians have meanwhile criticised the pope's stance on migrants — but Marseille mayor Benoit Payan said the pontiff "has a message to deliver, not advice to give".

"We have a pope who is particularly courageous and who, in the turmoil of the world, in the crises we are currently facing, has a universal message... of peace," he told AFP.

Francky Domingo, who runs a migrant association in Marseille, said he hoped the visit would "give back a little hope" and "ease tensions at the political level".

"Marseille is a cosmopolitan city, multicultural, multi-faith," he told AFP, but faces "enormous difficulties". — AFP

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