The Vatican City population of about 800 grew by 12 as Pope Francis put three families of Syrian refugees aboard the papal plane before leaving Greece.
The Vatican said in a statement that the pope “desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees” by taking in the families, which include six children. “These are all people who were already in camps in Lesbos before the agreement between the European Union and Turkey.”
“The Pope’s initiative was brought to fruition through negotiations carried out by the Secretariat of State with the competent Greek and Italian authorities.”
The Vatican noted that all of the refugees are Muslim.
“Two families come from Damascus, and one from Deir Azzor (in the area occupied by Daesh). Their homes had been bombed,” the statement continued.
“The Vatican will take responsibility for bringing in and maintaining the three families. The initial hospitality will be taken care of by the Community of Sant’Egidio,” a lay service organization. The Vatican will pay for their housing and care costs.
At the Port of Lesbos, Pope Francis was joined by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymus II, where he prayed that in caring for refugees “may we seek a world where none are forced to leave their home and where all can live in freedom, dignity and peace.”
Pope Francis told reporters aboard his plane that “everything was arranged according to the rules.”
“They have their documents. The Holy See, the Greek government and the Italian government have checked everything. They have been welcomed by the Vatican and with the collaboration of the Saint Egidio community they will be searching for work,” the pope said, according to Vatican Radio.
Asked why Muslims instead of Christians were taken in by the Vatican, the pope said they weren’t selecting refugees by religion but by which families had their papers in order.
“I have always said that building walls is not a solution. We saw walls during the last century and they did not resolve anything,” he responded to questions about the closing of European borders. “We must build bridges. Bridges are built with intelligence, with dialogue, with integration.”
Pope Francis also acknowledged meeting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was one of the speakers at a conference on social, economic and environmental issues hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, but stressed it was not a political meeting — rather, a polite greeting.
“When I came out he was there, he was staying at Santa Marta and knew at what time I would be leaving. I greeted him and his wife, a handshake and nothing more. It’s called courtesy,” the pope said. “If someone thinks that greeting someone is meddling in politics it’s time to look for a psychiatrist.”
Sanders said after the meeting: “He is a beautiful man. I am not a Catholic, but there is a radiance that comes from him. It was very wonderful to meet him.” The senator’s wife, Jane, is Catholic, and said “the trip was definitely worth it.”