Pope decries ‘fanaticism of indifference’ toward migrants, as he prays for the dead in the French port of Marseille

The visit came as Europe’s migrant dilemma is again in headlines, after the Italian island of Lampedusa was overwhelmed last week by nearly 7,000 migrants

Marseille (France),
Pope Francis greets participants during a moment of recollection with migrants and religious leaders in Marseille, southern France, on September 22, 2023.ALESSANDRO DI MEO (EFE)

Pope Francis blasted the “fanaticism of indifference” that greets migrants seeking a better life, as he arrived Friday in the Mediterranean port of Marseille amid a new influx of would-be refugees from Africa that has sparked a backlash from some of Europe’s increasingly anti-migrant leaders.

Opening a brief, overnight visit to the French port, Francis presided over a silent moment of prayer at a memorial dedicated to sailors and migrants lost at sea. He was surrounded by Marseille’s faith leaders and representatives of migrant rescue organizations that have increasingly come under fire from Europe’s populist leaders.

The visit, scheduled months ago, came as Europe’s migrant dilemma is again in headlines, after the Italian island of Lampedusa was overwhelmed last week by nearly 7,000 migrants who arrived in a day, more than its resident population.

“Cruelty, a lack of humanity. A terrible lack of humanity,” Francis said of the Lampedusa drama as he flew to Marseille.

History’s first Latin American pope has made the plight of migrants a priority of his 10-year pontificate, travelling to Lampedusa in his first trip as pope to honor migrants who drowned, celebrating Mass on the U.S.-Mexico border and most spectacularly, bringing home 12 Syrian Muslims on his plane after visiting a Lesbos, Greece refugee camp.

Citing the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger, Francis has developed a mantra, exhorting governments to welcome, promote, protect and integrate desperate people fleeing wars, poverty, and climate crises.

On Friday, Francis gathered with Marseille priests at the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica and then led an interfaith prayer at its nearby memorial, which stands on a rocky outcropping overlooking Marseille and the Mediterranean Sea. There, Francis said far too many people fleeing war, poverty, misery, and climate disasters had never made it to shore.

“And so this beautiful sea has become a huge cemetery, where many brothers and sisters are deprived even of the right to a grave.”

Adding to his prepared remarks, he extended a special thank-you to the humanitarian groups that rescue migrants, blasting efforts to block their rescues as “gestures of hatred” — an apparent reference to Italy’s frequent impounding of rescue boats on technical violations.

Francis is in Marseille to preside over the closing session of a gathering of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops. But his two-day visit to Marseille is aimed at sending a message well beyond the Catholic faithful to Europe, North Africa and beyond.

About 350,000 Catholic faithful were expected in the city over the weekend, including 100,000 to line Marseille’s major avenue ahead of a Saturday Mass at the Velodrome stadium that President Emmanuel Macron is expected to attend. The city was put under high security, including through kilometers (miles) of barriers and dozens of surveillance cameras deployed along Francis’ route.

Francis’ visit comes 10 years after his papacy-opening pilgrimage to Lampedusa, which is the migrant smugglers’ destination of choice because it’s closer to Africa than the Italian mainland. There, Francis celebrated Mass on an altar made of shipwrecked wood, tossed flowers in the sea in tribute to migrants who had drowned and decried the “globalization of indifference” that the world shows desperate migrants.

On Friday, he issued a more emphatic variation on that theme, blasting the “fanaticism of indifference” that greets migrants, a recognition that in the 10 years since, Europe has only hardened its line on migration with some countries emphasizing border fences, repatriations, and the possibility of a naval blockade to keep migrants out.

In that same decade, according to the International Organization of Migration, an estimated 28,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, while others have been subject to horrendous conditions in Libyan detention centers where abuse is rife.

“We cannot be resigned to seeing human beings treated as bargaining chips, imprisoned and tortured in atrocious ways,” Francis said in clear reference to the Libyan camps. “We can no longer watch the drama of shipwrecks caused by the cruel trafficking and the fanaticism of indifference.”

He insisted that people who are at risk of drowning “when abandoned to the waves” must be rescued.

“It’s a duty of humanity; it’s a duty of civilization!” he said.

He spoke in front of a monument made up of the cross of Camargue, a symbol composed of a Christian cross, an anchor, and a heart embodying faith, hope, and charity. The words “to those who perished and disappeared at sea, victims of illegal immigration” were added to the memorial in 2010, after some migrants were saved from a shipwreck by a French ship.

After the new arrivals at Lampedusa last week, Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni resurrected calls for a naval blockade and announced new centers to hold those who don’t qualify for asylum until they can be sent home.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Lampedusa and backed Meloni’s call for beefed up naval missions to prevent departures from Tunisia, insisting that the European Union would decide who can enter the bloc, not human traffickers.

France, for its part, beefed up patrols at its southern border with Italy, a few hours’ drive from Marseille, and increased drone surveillance of the Alps to keep newcomers from crossing over. With a European Parliament election set for next year and France’s far right challenging the centrist government’s policies, French government officials stood firm.

“France will not take in migrants from Lampedusa,” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said this week on French TV network TF1. “It’s not by taking in more people that we’re going to stem a flow that obviously affects our ability to integrate” them into French society, he said.

Marseille’s archbishop, Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, who was born in Algeria and moved to France as a child, has said such “aggressive” measures weren’t the answer. But he said “naive” and peacenik speeches about everyone living together happily ever after weren’t helpful either.

Speaking at the memorial on Friday, Aveline noted that death at sea is a risk sailors take as part of their job. But he said migrants fleeing war and misery shouldn’t be forced to face such risks. He said it was “criminal” that migrant traffickers take advantage of desperate migrants.

“And when political institutions forbid non-governmental organizations and also commercial ships that cross these waters from rescuing shipwreck victims, it’s an even more serious crime and violation of the most elementary international maritime law,” Aveline said.

It was an apparent reference to regulations Meloni’s right-wing government has introduced, requiring humanitarian rescue ships to return to port after each rescue, often far from the search and rescue zone, taking them out of active rescue operations for days at a time.

Ahead of Francis’ visit, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the maritime rescue organization SOS Mediterranee, which operates a ship that assists migrants, issued an urgent appeal for rescues to continue.

“The unfathomable death toll in the Mediterranean this year could have been prevented if the political will was there,” the groups said.

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