MYTILENE, Greece (CNS) -- Pope Francis' five-hour visit to Greece ended with him offering safe passage to Italy to 12 Syrian Muslims, half under the age of 18. The Vatican had kept secret the pope's plan to invite the members of three Syrian families to fly back to Rome with him April 16. Rumors began swirling in the Greek media a couple hours before the flight took off, but it was confirmed by the Vatican only as the 12 were boarding the papal plane.
The Vatican Secretariat of State made formal arrangements with the Italy and the Greek governments to obtain the legal permits needed for the refugees to live in Italy, a Vatican statement said. The Vatican will assume financial responsibility for the families, who will be assisted by the Rome-based Community of Sant'Egidio. All 12 in the group, the Vatican added, had arrived in Greece prior to March 20, the date a European Union agreement with Turkey went into effect for returning most asylum seekers to Turkey.
The children are between the ages of 2 and 17. After spending the morning with desperate refugees interned in a camp in Greece, Pope Francis and Orthodox leaders turned their attention and prayers to the sea, the final burial place of hundreds who died trying to get to Europe. Just since January, the International Organization for Migration said, more than 150,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Greece and 366 people died attempting crossing the Aegean Sea to the country.
"Though many of their graves bear no name, to you each one is know, loved and cherished," Pope Francis prayed to God April 16 in Mytilene, a city on Lesbos, the island on which more than half the refugees have landed. "Wake us from the slumber of indifference," the pope prayed, "open our eyes to their suffering and free us from the insensitivity born of world comfort and self-centeredness."