Speaking to huge crowds in Marseille, Pope Francis urged European governments to act together to welcome migrants and prevent the Mediterranean, where thousands have drowned, from becoming a “sea of death.”
Immigration issues dominated Francis’ 27-hour journey to the French port of Marseille, which has been a crossroads of cultures and religions for centuries.
In a 35-minute speech Saturday morning, closing a Church conference on Mediterranean issues, the pontiff urged governments to welcome migrants instead of seeing them as invaders.
“Those who risk their lives at sea are not invading, they are seeking to be welcomed,” he said.
“There is a cry of pain that resonates the most and that transforms the Mediterranean, the “mare nostrum”, from the cradle of civilization to the “mare mortuum”, the cemetery of dignity: it is the muffled cry of migrants . brothers and sisters,” he said, using Latin terms meaning “our sea” and “sea of death.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 178,500 migrants have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean this year, while around 2,500 have died or disappeared.
Last week, some 8,500 people arrived on 199 boats on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
In his speech, Francis called on the people to “hear the cries of pain” that rise from migrants in search of a better life.
He said migration was not an emergency but “a reality of our times, a process that involves three continents around the Mediterranean and that must be governed with wise foresight, including a European response.”
The governments of several European countries, including Italy, Hungary and Poland, are led by outspoken opponents of immigration.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who welcomed Francis upon his arrival in Marseille on Friday, said France would not accept any migrants from the island.
President Emmanuel Macron and Interior Minister Darmanin plan stricter measures to control arrivals through a new immigration bill to be submitted to Parliament this fall.
Macron held a private meeting with the pope on Saturday and attended a papal mass in the afternoon in front of 50,000 people at the city’s Stade Vélodrome. Authorities said another 100,000 people were on the path to the stadium.
Some left-wing politicians criticized the president’s decision to attend the mass, calling it a violation of France’s secularism laws, which strictly separate church and state. Macron said he was present out of respect for the pope.
Others on the right have criticized Francis for his “interference” in domestic politics, notably on the issues of medical assistance in dying and the inclusion of the right to abortion in the constitution – two of Macron’s projects.
Elderly people risk being “sidelined, under the false pretexts of a supposedly dignified and “sweet” death, more “salty” than the waters of the sea,” Francis warned.
He also spoke of “unborn children, rejected in the name of a false right to progress, which is rather a retreat into the selfish needs of the individual.”
(with press wires)