Greece — In an emotional visit to a fenced-in refugee center on this Greek island, Pope Francis told hundreds of displaced families Saturday that "you are not alone" — and underscored it by taking three families of Syrian Muslim refugees back to Rome with him.
The 12 refugees, including six children, joined the pope on his plane after a five-hour visit to the Moria detention center. The pope also asked European leaders to do more to help the thousands of refugees stuck in camps.
Two of the families are from Damascus, and one is from an area of Syria now occupied by the Islamic State, according to a statement by the Vatican press office.
The pope "desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees" and worked out an agreement between the Greek and Italian authorities regarding the families, the statement said.
"Refugees are not numbers; they are people who have faces, names, stories and need to be treated as such," Francis tweeted.
The 12 refugees will be cared for in Rome by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic lay organization dedicated to charity, the Vatican said. The Vatican is already hosting two refugee families in Rome.
Nour Essa, 30, a Palestinian-Syrian scientist, is one of the 12 who returned to Rome with the pope. She will be relocated along with her 3-year-old son and husband. The family fled because her husband was being pressured to join the Syrian army.
"We heard of the EU-Turkey deal which would be implemented on March 20 and decided despite the bad weather to get on one of the boats to Lesbos," she said. "We were very lucky: Friends of ours that were living with us in Turkey that came the next day were not given papers and are still in jail in Moria camp. Instead, we will be refugees in Italy!"
The pope's gesture came as the European Unionbegins to implements a controversial plan to deport refugees from Greece back to Turkey.
The deal stipulates anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands on or after March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. For every Syrian sent back, the EU will take another Syrian directly from Turkey for resettlement in Europe.
In return, Turkey was granted concessions including billions of dollars to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there, and a speeding up of its stalled accession talks with the EU.
Human rights groups have denounced the deal as an abdication of Europe's obligations to grant protection to asylum-seekers.
Hours before Francis arrived, the European border patrol agency Frontex intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of Lesbos. The refugees were detained and brought to shore in the main port of Mytilene, the Associated Press reports.
When the pope visited 250 refugees at the Moria detention center, one young girl fell sobbing to her knees in front of him. The pontiff gently lifted her to her feet and stroked her hair. A woman told the pope that her husband was in Germany, but that she was stuck with her two sons in Lesbos.
The pope made the rounds among many of the refugees, shaking hands with young people along a fence and later addressing the group.
"I want to tell you that you are not alone," he said. "In these weeks and months, you have endured much suffering in your search for a better life. Many of you felt forced to flee situations of conflict and persecution for the sake, above all, of your children, your little ones."
Francis was met at the airport by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras along with Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and the Archbishop of Athens.