Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis is to visit Lesbos on 16 April in a gesture of solidarity towards asylum seekers and refugees there.
The announcement came just two days after initial reports of a possible trip to the Greek island which, like Italy’s Lampedusa, finds itself on the front line in efforts to handle the huge influx of men, women and children from Africa, the Middle East and Asia seeking international protection in Europe.
The joint visit with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I would appear to have been organised in record time.
It is fantastic that Pope Francis is putting such effort into highlighting the terrible plight of migrants and refugees.
His first official visit as pope in 2013 was precisely to the tiny island of Lampedusa that is closer to North Africa than it is to mainland Sicily, and which has seen a staggering 400,000 migrants pass through its ‘doors’ in the last 20 years.
Last September, after European consciences were stirred briefly by the harrowing photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on a Turkish beach, Francis invited all Catholic parishes to take in refugees.
Most recently, he chose to hold the Holy Thursday feet-washing rite at a reception centre for asylum seekers (CARA) in Castelnuovo di Porto, just down the road from Monterotondo.
However, as I read the news of the upcoming Lesbos visit I found myself wondering why the pope couldn’t put the same zeal into arranging an equally important and long-awaited visit to the Great Mosque in Rome.
He received a formal invitation from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, which houses Europe’s largest (and extremely beautiful) Muslim house of prayer, on 20 January.
The invitation came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, even though both sides were said to have been working on the visit for around ten months.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at the time that the invitation had been accepted ”with gratitude and it will be considered. The Pope will see what to do.”
He also urged caution in speculation about a date, though qualified sources told ANSA that the parties were “working towards 10 April”, a Sunday.
Since then, with the exception of a couple of reports that Francis will visit the mosque “shortly”, there has been total silence.
This is a shame considering that Europe’s refugee crisis and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism are in many respects two sides of the same coin, and also that the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers entering Europe right now are Muslim.