LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – About two dozen asylum-seekers gathered for Mass in a small Roman Catholic church on the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday ahead of a visit by Pope Francis that they hope will draw attention to their struggles.
Francis, on a three-day visit to Greece, is due to go to Lesbos on Sunday for the second time, planning to meet migrants and refugees living in a temporary reception centre set up after the notorious Moria camp burned down last year.
Many of those attending Saturday’s service had fled years of conflict in African countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.
Women with young children, some of them in strollers, listened from the church’s courtyard, bundled up in thick coats and scarves under grey skies.
The new Mavrovouni camp, set up in an old army firing base, hosts about 2,300 people, most of them Afghans, and the small Catholic community there was elated by news of the pope’s visit.
“We hope that by this visit, maybe something can change,” said Landrid, a 42-year-old man who fled a separatist insurgency in Cameroon three years ago and has been stranded on Lesbos since, waiting for the final outcome of his asylum application.
“We just pray that he can contact the Greek government or asylum system of Greece and let them know that they cannot keep somebody here for more and more years,” he said.
“We are just looking for a new and good life.”
Greece has long been the main entry point into the European Union for migrants and refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people arrived on Lesbos’s beaches in 2015 after crossing on boats from Turkey.
In an address in Athens on Saturday, the pontiff compared the plight of migrants and refugees, many of whom have died at sea, as a “horrendous modern Odyssey”.
When he was in Lesbos in 2016, Francis walked through Moria, decried by rights groups for its squalid and overcrowded conditions, and took three Syrian refugee families with him on the plane back to Rome.
“The pope’s visit means a great deal to the people who come to our church,” said deacon Len Meachim, who has lived on Lesbos for nearly 40 years.
“It shows … that he’s with refugees and migrants, that he gives them support. It gives them comfort and they are also very much hoping that they will be blessed in some way.”
(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Helen Popper)