Pope Francis on Friday said European governments have a duty to rescue asylum-seekers who take to sea to escape conflict, warning against a “paralysis of fear, on the first day of a visit to the French Mediterranean city of Marseille.
Streets and monuments were decked out in the yellow and white colours of the Vatican for the first visit by a pope to France’s second-largest city in 500 years, where 100,000 people are expected to turn out to greet the pontiff in his “popemobile” on Saturday.
The 86-year-old is visiting to take part in a meeting of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops and young people — but his trip comes at a politically sensitive time.
As European nations have sought to shift responsibility for taking care of people arriving by sea, the pope singled out “the disinterest that, with velvet gloves, condemns others to death”.
“People who are at risk of drowning when abandoned on the waves must be rescued,” he said at the hilltop Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, overlooking the glistening Mediterranean waters.
In remarks dedicated to migrants lost at sea, he said “it is a duty of humanity, it is a duty of civilisation” to save people in danger, warning governments against the “fanaticism of indifference” and “paralysis of fear”.
The Pope had earlier been greeted by France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who has vowed the country will not take in any of a recent wave of migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa, declaring France “wants a position of firmness”.
– ‘Gestures of hate’ –
A surge in migrant boats arriving from North Africa on the tiny Italian island last week triggered outrage in Italy and a heated debate across Europe over how to share responsibility for the influx.
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 during Francis’ decade as head of the Catholic Church.
In unprepared remarks added at the end of his speech the pope thanked NGOs rescuing migrants in danger at sea and condemned efforts to prevent their activity as “gestures of hate”.
“We hope this will have an impact and people will stop criminalising what we’re doing, on the contrary that more resources will be deployed to save more people,” Fabienne Lassalle, deputy director of SOS Mediterrannee, told AFP.
The aid group has been running rescue missions in the Mediterranean since 2015, with its ship the Ocean Viking sometimes held in port by authorities or denied permission to dock after pulling people from the water.
– Arduous travel –
Appearing frail but alert and cheerful, Francis mostly got around by wheelchair on the first day of his visit, standing only at select moments such as when greeted by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on the airport tarmac.
He was driven him through the Old Port of Marseille in a distinctive Fiat 500L car, where he waved from the open window as crowds lined the streets.
But he used the wheelchair again to get around the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a symbolic monument overlooking the city, for a prayer service with local clergy, and the car was brought as close as possible for his departure after his remarks on sea rescues.
Ahead of what is his 44th overseas trip, Francis acknowledged this month that his papal voyages are not as easy as they used to be.
Pope Francis underwent hernia surgery in June, less than two years after having colon surgery, and routinely uses a wheelchair because of a troublesome knee.
Despite the decline in France of Catholicism, the once dominant faith, the pope’s visit has sparked huge enthusiasm, with almost 60,000 people expected at a mass on Saturday afternoon.
For Joseph Achji, a 25-year-old Syrian Christian originally from Aleppo, the pope’s visit is a “chance of a lifetime”.
On Saturday morning, Francis 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.
On Saturday afternoon, Francis will lead a mass at the Velodrome stadium, with French President Emmanuel Macron among those due to attend.
Macron’s attendance has sparked controversy among left-wing politicians in the officially secular country.
Some right-wing politicians have criticised the pope’s stance on migrants — but Marseille mayor Benoit Payan said the pontiff “has a universal message… of peace”.