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How Will The Pope's Invitation To Refugees Impact The Migrant Crisis?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Italy today, three Syrian families are settling into new accommodations courtesy of Pope Francis. He invited the refugees, 12 people including six children, to leave with him after his visit this weekend to Lesbos, the Greek island off the coast of Turkey that has been inundated by migrants trying to make their way to Europe. Reporter Joanna Kakissis is on the island of Lesbos. She joins me now. Joanna, good morning.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: And we've also got NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. She has been covering the pope and she stayed behind in Greece to speak with us. Sylvia, thanks for being with us.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Sylvia, let's start with you. What do you know about these Syrian refugees and how this extraordinary invitation came about by Pope Francis?

POGGIOLI: Well, the pope said that one of his aides suggested the idea just a week ago. And he immediately agreed, saying it fit the spirit of his visit to Lesbos. They were apparently chosen by lottery, two families from Damascus and one from an area under ISIS control. The group includes six children. The pope was asked why the refugees are all Muslim. And he said that there was something missing in the documents of a Christian family that had originally been on the list. Now thanks to arrangements made with the Italian government by the charitable Sant'Egidio community in Rome, the three families will be given humanitarian visas and will apply for asylum. And last night, after they landed in Rome, they were given a festive welcome by a band of drummers and cheering crowds.

MARTIN: So Joanna, Lesbos has been this landing point for hundreds of thousands of people seeking entry into Europe. You've been covering this for a long time. What are you seeing on Lesbos right now? What did you see when Francis was there?

KAKISSIS: So you're not seeing many refugees on Lesbos anymore. The Greek coast guard's only picking up about a hundred asylum seekers a day at sea at most. And compare that to the thousands who were arriving daily just a year ago. And those who arrived after March 20 are held in a detention camp surrounded by an iron fence. That's happening because the European Union and Turkey agreed to a deal late last month that's focused on deporting migrants. The pope and Bartholomew I, he's the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church - they spent a couple of hours with asylum-seekers at this detention camp.

MARTIN: More broadly, Joanna, how did the Greeks respond to the visit?

KAKISSIS: Well, as I mentioned, the Greeks really welcomed the pope's visit. They were cheering for him. And I met a woman named Vasiliki Stylianopoulos Moore just outside the port. She's a Greek-American from New Hampshire, and she's volunteering with refugees here now. And she sees Pope Francis as an ally.

VASILIKI STYLIANOPOULOS MOORE: So we're so encouraged to see him and the patriarch together and also for - as a symbol to the European Union and to all of humanity that we must welcome people and offer hospitality where we can.

KAKISSIS: The Greeks really appreciate that Pope Francis supports the underdog. He spoke in support of Greeks as they've slogged through an economic crisis. And now he's standing by them as they managed the refugee crisis.

MARTIN: Sylvia, lastly, the pope's visit was clearly a powerful symbol, as was the act of taking in these refugees. But does that symbolism extend into anything pragmatic that could change something about this refugee crisis?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's too soon to say. The visit was triggered by that controversial EU-Turkey deportation deal. And EU officials are very happy that the number of arrivals here has plummeted since the deal went into effect. The Vatican insists the visit and the gesture to take the refugees back to Rome was humanitarian. But it was also clearly meant to prick the conscience of many European countries that are locking migrants out.

The pope said he was very shaken by the children he met at the deportation center. He showed a picture an Afghan child gave him of a sun weeping over a sea where migrants had drowned. The pope said if the sun is able to weep, so can we. A tear would do us good. And in their joint declaration, the pope and the two Orthodox leaders quoted a verse from the Gospel of Matthew - all will be judged by their actions.

MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli and reporter Joanna Kakissis reporting from the island of Lesbos in Greece. Thanks to you both.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

KAKISSIS: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.