Vatican City, Holy See—Pope Francis headed to Marseille Friday for a two-day visit focused on the Mediterranean and migration, and 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 center 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, as we also see from the news in recent days, 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 historic gateway for immigrants and also home to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe, many of which are plagued by drug trafficking.
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.
The pope’s plane is expected to arrived at at 1415 GMT (10.15 pm Friday Manila time), 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.
He will then be driven 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 originally from Aleppo, the pope’s visit to Marseille is a “chance of a lifetime”.
He told AFP he was “really excited to see the pope” and to meet other young people.
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.
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