Pope Francis condemned “slavery” and “torture” suffered by people fleeing war and poverty, speaking at a prayer service for migrants on a visit to the divided island of Cyprus.
“It reminds us of the history of the last century, of the Nazis, of Stalin, and we wonder how this could have happened,” he said Friday, stressing the need to “open our eyes.”
Francis was expected to take 50 migrants back to Italy – a gesture that inspired dozens more to flock to the Church of the Holy Cross, some in apparent hopes that they too may get the chance to start new lives there.
Christians from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia filled the pews of the Nicosia church next to the UN-patrolled buffer zone that divides the Mediterranean island, a key destination for irregular migrants.
“Your presence, migrant brothers and sisters, is very significant for this celebration,” said the 84-year-old pontiff.
He praised “the dream of a humanity freed of walls of division, freed of hostility, where there are no longer strangers, but only fellow citizens – fellow citizens who are diverse, yet proud of that diversity and individuality, which are God’s gift.”
The plight of migrants and the notion of fraternity have been key themes of the visit of Francis, who Saturday travels on to Greece, including the key migrant hub island of Lesbos.
Francis – on his 35th international trip since becoming pope in 2013 – is the second Catholic pontiff to visit Cyprus after Benedict XVI in 2010.
In the church, he thanked migrants who had shared their testimonies of journeys from Iraq, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon, including one migrant who had declared being “wounded by hate.”
One South Asian spoke of a harrowing journey: “I have had to run away from violence, bombs, knives, hunger, and pain. I have been forced along dusty roads, pushed into trucks, hidden in the trunks of cars, thrown into leaking boats – deceived, exploited, forgotten, denied. I was forced on my journey.”
The pope said: “Your testimonies are like a mirror held up to us, to our Christian communities.”
“We should not be afraid of our differences, but of the closed-mindedness and prejudice that can prevent us from truly encountering one another and journeying together.”
Waiting outside the church was Nigerian migrant Kingdom Miracle Jonathan, 25.
“I would like the pope to conduct a prayer for me and to tell him how I need his help,” he said. “I’ve been suffering here … I have no accommodation, no job, I’m struggling to feed myself here in Cyprus, so I need help.”