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Greek foreign minister in Rome ahead of papal visit

ROME – Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias is visiting the Vatican on Tuesday, where he was scheduled to meet with top officials for discussions that will likely focus on issues related to Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Greece and Cyprus.

Pope Francis’s trip, announced Friday, will take him to Nicosia, Cyprus, Dec. 2-4 and then Athens and Lesbos, Greece, from Dec. 4-6.

Dendias, who arrived in Rome Monday, had a Nov. 2 video conference call with Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, in which the two discussed the papal visit as well as “developments in the broader region.”

On Monday Dendias was met with a slew of top Italian state officials, including Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, as well as Chairman of Italy’s Foreign Relations Committee, Piero Fassino, and members of Italy’s House of Representatives.

He also made a stop at the headquarters of the World Food Program, where he met with its Deputy Executive Director, Amir Mahmoud Abdulla.

These discussions largely focused on bilateral relations and issues related to cooperation within the European Union and developments in the Western Balkans, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

During his visit to the Vatican, Dendias was scheduled to meet Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, with many of the same issues on the agenda.

For years, Greece has been one of the main points of arrival for migrants seeking entry into Europe. The Greek island of Lesbos is currently hosting thousands of migrants, who are stuck in a sort of limbo waiting in large camps for any sign of progress on their requests for asylum.

Pope Francis visited Lesbos in 2016 in a bid to shed light on the migration issue and draw attention to the hundreds of migrants and refugees who die in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean every year, famously bringing back a dozen refugees with him on his return flight to Rome.

However, the pope’s visit to Greece in December will mark his first visit to the Greek mainland.

The Moria refugee camp Francis visited during his 2016 trip to Lesbos, which was the largest camp in Europe, burned down in September 2020. A temporary camp was set up nearby, which continues to host thousands of migrants and refugees, with more coming by the day.

Yet while most of Europe’s incoming migrants and refugees land in countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and Malta, a significant portion also make their way to Cyprus.

According to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, as of Oct. 31 some 464 migrants had arrived in Malta since the beginning of the year, whereas Cyprus had received roughly 1,515.

When Pope Francis visits Cyprus, it is expected that the problem of migration will also be a key issue addressed in his speeches, as well as dialogue and Christian-Muslim relations.

Since 1974, the island of Cyprus has been divided between the Greek Cypriots in the South and Turkish Cypriots in the North, with only Turkey recognizing the north as the “the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.”

For the rest of the international community, Turkey’s ongoing presence in north Cyprus is considered an occupation, with the Republic of Cyprus recognized as the sole legitimate state.

To this day, U.N. troops continue to monitor the buffer-zone between the two sides of the island.

Speaking to Italian news outlet SIR, the official news platform for the Italian bishops’ conference, Sevastianos Rossolatos, archbishop emeritus of Athens and president of the Greek Bishops Conference, said the papal visit is “awaited not only by Catholics of the country by everyone, because Greeks will see us united around one person.”

Greece, where 90 percent of the population belongs to the Orthodox Church, is preparing to celebrate 200 years of independence from the Ottoman Empire, which was declared on January 1, 1822.

In this sense, the pope “will come to give us support and encouragement,” Rossolatos said, adding, “it is work remember that Catholics in Greece are a minority. Fifty years ago, we were 50,000, while today, with the arrival of foreign workers, we are over 200,000, but still a minority.”

“We are a new Church with respect to tradition and the past, and for this we need the pope’s comfort and encouragement,” he said.

Referring to the motto of the Pope Francis’s coming visit to Greece, “Let us open ourselves to the surprises of God, who wants to make his light shine upon our path,” Rossolatos said the pope’s visit is bringing Greece a clear message: “open up to surprises, throw your nets into the open sea.”

“This will also help us to rediscover ecumenical trust,” he said.

Archbishop Josif Printezis of the Archdiocese of Naxos-Tinos, which includes the island of Lesbos, told SIR that locals are excited for the pope’s visit, noting that “Lesbos is a place very dear to Pope Francis because it is a meeting point for migrants in transit to Europe, who are in search of a future and peace.”

When Pope Francis visits Lesbos Dec. 5, he will celebrate a special Mass and will meet migrants living on the island, Printezis said, noting that while there are fewer migrants than when the pope visited in 2016, “this does not detract from the importance and significance of this return to the island.”

“We are preparing a warm welcome for the pontiff,” he said.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, spoke of Francis’s visit to Cyprus, which falls under the patriarchate of Jerusalem’s jurisdiction, saying in a statement after the visit was announced that it will be a time of “dialogue, encounter, and welcome,” which are not only salient features of Cypriot culture, but are also key themes in the current Synod of Bishops on synodality.

Cyprus, in its own way, “on the one hand contains within itself the richness and splendor, but also the contradictions and dramas of the entire Middle East.”

“On the other hand, it is a window into the Western world, with which it has always maintained lively relations,” Pizzaballa said, calling Cyprus “a bridge in which eastern and western cultures converge and mix, and which carries within it the beauty and wounds that history has handed on to us.”

Speaking to SIR, Pizzaballa said the political divisions in Cyprus are “a sign, an open wound in the heart of the Old Continent, which history has given us and which we must deal with, even if Europe tends to forget it.”

“The fate of West also passes through the East,” he said, adding, “Cyprus holds within itself all Middle Eastern issues, divisions, religious sectarianism, migration, and relations with the northern shore of the Mediterranean.”

These are issues that, “however much you want to close your eyes, also have an influence on the West,” Pizzaballa said, insisting that the papal visit “will be an encouragement for everyone to become aware of our reality as a complex and extremely varied Church.”

Pizzaballa offered a preview of the pope’s activities in Cyprus, saying that during his brief stay, Francis will meet with Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Cyprus as well as other members of the Orthodox community.

Pope Francis, according to Pizzaballa, will also meet with priests and religious who live on the island, he will celebrate a large public Mass for Catholics, and he will also meet with migrants and refugees, making this one of the key underlying themes of his visit to both nations.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen


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