Pope Francis delivers his speech at the Presidential Palace in Athens
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Pope Francis returns to Greece with focus on migrants

Pope Francis has described the fates of migrants as a "horrendous modern Odyssey" during his visit to Athens. He was also heckled by an Orthodox priest over centuries-old religious disputes.

Pope Francis landed in Greece on Saturday on the second leg of his eastern Mediterranean tour aimed at drawing attention to the suffering of migrants and refugees.

His arrival in Athens, where he was greeted by Greek youth in traditional dress, a boy from Africa and a girl from the Philippines, comes after two days in Cyprus with much the same focus on the world's displaced people. Pope Francis has made humanizing migrants and refugees a key part of his papacy.

What did pope say in Athens?

The religious leader likened the hardships faced by migrants as a "horrendous modern Odyssey."

He also praised Athens and Greece as the cradle of democracy.

"From the cradle, millennia later, became a house, a great house of democratic peoples: I refer to the European Union and to the dream of peace and fraternity that it represents for many peoples," the pontiff said in Athens after being received by President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

At the same time, Pope Francis also warned that Europe was being "torn by nationalist egoism," and decried "regression" in Europe and beyond.

Pope Francis Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou arrive at the Presidential Palace in Athens
Pope Francis met with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou Image: Theodore Manolopoulos/AP Photo/picture alliance

Pontiff heckled by Orthodox priest

An elderly Greek Orthodox priest heckled Pope Francis as he arrived for a meeting with the head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos. The priest was heard shouting three times over: "Pope, you are a heretic!"

Police led the man away, as the pontiff proceeded into the archbishop's residence for his private meeting where he was warmly received.

The trip to Athens is the first by a pope since John Paul II visited in 2001. Pope John Paul II's visit was the first to Athens since the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in 1054.

Catholics in Greece comprise just just 1.2% of the population, which is majority Greek Orthodox.

Ieronymos welcomed Francis "with a feeling of honor and fraternity."

As the two leaders met, Francis asked Ieronymos forgiveness for the crimes committed by the Catholic Church. 

"History has its own weight, and today I have the need to ask God and my brothers and sisters once again for forgiveness for the mistakes committed by so many Catholics," the pontiff said.

What is on the pope's itinerary in Athens?

Earlier on Saturday, Pope Francis met Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which was followed by the meeting with the archbishop. 

On Sunday evening, a large Mass is planned at the Athens Concert Hall.

Protests have been banned in the capital during the pope's three-day visit. A rally against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate had been planned outside parliament for Saturday.

Orthodox hard-liners who blame the Catholic Church for the schism and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 during the fourth crusade were expected to demonstrate against the pope's visit.

"They will be few, but loud," Petros Panagiotopoulos, a theologian at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, told the AFP news agency.

Pope Francis is set to return to Rome on Monday.

How has the pope focused on migrants and refugees?

During an emotional meeting Friday with asylum-seekers in Cyprus, Pope Francis likened the conditions migrants and refugees confront in Libya and elsewhere to the horrors of Nazi and Soviet camps. He said it was his responsibility to tell the truth about the conditions they faced.

While in Cyprus,  Francis helped facilitate the relocation of 50 migrants to Italy.

Pope stoops over to take a bouquet of flowers from a group of children in traditional garbs
The head of the Catholic Church was greeted by children from different parts of the world in AthensImage: Vatican Media/REUTERS

On Sunday, he will visit the Greek island of Lesbos again where many fleeing wars, natural disasters and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia are received. Sunday's visit to Lesbos will be his second. 

There he will visit the newly constructed Mavrovouni camp on Lesbos that replaces the Moria camp, destroyed by fire last year. Rights groups have decried the facility's focus on high security, likening it to incarceration. 

Berthe, a Cameroonian asylum-seeker at the camp, told AFP: "We await him with open arms." She added she hoped the pope "will pray for us to help us overcome the insecurities we have lived, through faith."

In 2016, Pope Francis visited Moria when he last visited Lesbos. As he walked through the camp, refugees and asylum-seekers begged and wept for help at his feet amid the desperate conditions of the camp. He returned to Rome with three Syrian families.

ar/dj (AFP, AP, Reuters)