Pope urges compassion for migrants in Easter appeal

AFP , Sunday 27 Mar 2016

Pope Francis delivers the Urbi et Orbi benediction at the end of the Easter Mass in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican March 27, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Pope Francis on Sunday spoke out against the "rejection" of refugees as the European migrant crisis saw its latest desperate scenes on the Greek border with Macedonia.

The pontiff used his Easter address to urge people to offer "welcome and assistance" to those fleeing war and poverty, as Europe struggles with its worst migration crisis since World War II.

Countries along Europe's "Balkan route" have toughened their stance on migrants in recent weeks, closing their borders to those seeking to transit in search of a better life in the continent's wealthier northern states.

The shutdown has led to a bottleneck at the Greece-Macedonia frontier, where the Greek authorities have been trying to evacuate an estimated 11,500 people stranded at the squalid Idomeni camp.

But on Sunday, dozens of migrants who had left, rushed back to the camp following a rumour that journalists and Red Cross officials would help them force their way across the fence into Macedonia.

The EU and Turkey struck a deal earlier this month that will see new migrants arriving on the Greek islands returned to Turkey, in the hope of discouraging them from making the dangerous sea crossing.

During Good Friday prayers, the pope decried what he called Europe's "indifferent and anaesthetised conscience" over migrants and on Sunday he took up the theme again.

"The Easter message of the risen Christ... invites us not to forget those men and women seeking a better future, an ever more numerous throng of migrants and refugees... fleeing from war, hunger, poverty and social injustice," the pope said.

Francis has long called for the global community to open its doors to refugees and fight xenophobia -- appeals which have intensified since the controversial EU-Turkey deal.

In his Easter address, the pope also referred to Syria's "lengthy conflict, with its sad wake of destruction, death, contempt for humanitarian law", voicing hope for a positive result from UN-brokered peace talks that opened in Geneva in mid-March and are to resume in April.

Syria's five-year conflict has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes, with neighbouring countries bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis.

The United Nations and human rights groups have condemned the EU-Turkey deal as unethical and possibly illegal, but it appears to have dramatically slowed the tide of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands.

Before the deal, thousands of migrants were landing every day on the islands. This week, this number fell to 600 on Tuesday, 260 on Wednesday and zero on Thursday.

The Turkish coastguard on Sunday intercepted five boats carrying some 350 migrants who were trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, local media reported.

Libya's coastguard also halted three boats carrying 600 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, a navy spokesman said.

Greek authorities have used the relative calm to put in place logistics to send people back to Turkey, including the deployment of 4,000 security personnel and asylum experts.

But the recent closure of the Balkan route has left around 50,000 migrants stuck in Greece.

In Idomeni, about 300 people gathered by the border fence, singing and shouting slogans, an AFP correspondent said, in a largely peaceful demonstration watched by Greek riot police.

Some in the crowd attempted to move towards the police line but were blocked by others who formed a human chain, the correspondent said.

As the border with Macedonia remained sealed, calm returned to the camp on Sunday afternoon and Greek authorities resumed transporting migrants away from Idomeni to other centres.

In Rome meanwhile, security was tight as Francis presided over an Easter mass with huge crowds gathered below the central balcony in St Peter's Basilica.

The pontiff mentioned a spate of recent attacks in his address, including Tuesday's attacks in Brussels that killed 28 people.

He condemned "terrorism, that blind and brutal form of violence which continues to shed blood in different parts of the world, as in the recent attacks in Belgium, Turkey, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast".

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