Pope Francis hailed as saviour by Syrian refugees taken in by Vatican

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Refugee families taken to Vatican express gratitude to pontiff for his gesture of hope in rescuing them from Lesbos

The Syrian refugees Pope Francis took in following his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos have hailed the pontiff as a saviour for offering them a new life.

In a hugely symbolic move seen as a lesson in solidarity for Europe, Francis, who is the son of Italian migrants to Argentina, took 12 Syrians from three families all of them Muslims home with him to the Vatican on Saturday.

All refugees are children of God, the 79-year-old pontiff said on the flight back to Rome, adding that though his gesture was a drop in the ocean he hoped the ocean will never be the same again.

In an interview with the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa, the families, who spent their first night in Rome at a Catholic charity, expressed their gratitude for the popes gesture of hope.

We saw friends and relatives die in the rubble, we fled Syria because we no longer had any hope, said Hasan, an engineer from Damascus, who arrived in Italy with his wife, Nour, and two-year-old son.

After fleeing to Turkey, he and his family set out for Europein a rubber dinghy that sailed from the Turkish coast to Greece. But it was overloaded, he said, recalling the pitch black of the sea at night and the waves rocking the vessel.

In Lesbos, we understood that we were stuck in a place that we could not leave, [we were] in a trap, a prison, he said. He described the pope as a saviour for taking them off the island, where thousands of migrants risk being sent back to Turkey under a new deportation deal between the EU and Turkey.

Pope Francis spoke emotionally on Sunday of his meeting with migrants and refugees on Lesbos. Addressing worshippers at his weekly Angelus prayer in St Peters Square, the pontiff related his visit to a migrant processing centre, where about 3,000 people are being held.

We greeted around 300 of them, one by one, said Francis, who was accompanied on his visit by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens.

There were so many children. Some of these children witnessed their parents and friends dying, drowned at sea. I saw such suffering, he said.

He went on to tell of one particular case, that of a young man, who was not even 40.

I met him yesterday with his two sons. He was Muslim and told me he had married a Christian, [and that] they loved and respected each other, he said. She had her throat slit by terrorists because she would not renounce Christ and abandon her faith.

Wafa, another of the refugees on the papal flight from Lesbos with her husband Osama, eight-year-old daughter Masa and six-year-old son Omar, told La Stampa of the constant bombardments the experienced around their home.

Since then [my son] has barely spoken he is locked in an impenetrable silence, she said. Even today, he wakes up every night crying and we cannot get him to play with his sister.

Wafa said she and her husband, who are from the Damascus suburb of Zamalka, had opted to cut ties with the past. We know we took the right decision, she said. After their stay on Lesbos, which seemed interminable Francis gave us a new life, she said.

Ramy, a 51-year-old teacher from the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, which is occupied by Islamic State, fled Syria with his wife Suhila and three children sons Rashid, 18 and Abdelmajid, 16, and daughter Al Quds, seven after their home was destroyed in the war.

We discuss a lot and find it hard to imagine what life will be like in the future. We dont know whether we will start over in Europe or whether, one day, we will be able to return to a Syria free of war and violence, he told La Stampa.

We are grateful to the pope, we will prove ourselves worthy of this opportunity and the gift he gave us, he said.

The three families, who had initially set their sights on reaching Germany or another European country, were expected to seek asylum in Italy.

Their arrival brings to about 20 the number of refugees living in the Vatican, which has fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. A similar intake across Europe would see 6 million people given asylum on the continent of 300 million.

Last year, the pope appealed to every Catholic diocese in Europe to take in a refugee family, an appeal that fell on deaf ears across most parts of the continent.

The number of migrants arriving in Greece has fallen drastically since Turkey agreed to take back all those landing on the Greek islands in return for billions in EU cash and other concessions.

More than 1.1 million people have crossed clandestinely from Turkey to Greece since the start of 2015, and hundreds have drowned en route.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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