Pope Francis told Syrian and Iraqi refugees at a camp in Bulgaria that their experiences were “a cross for humanity” as he continued his visit to the Balkans on Monday.
Arriving in Bulgaria on Sunday, Francis begun his three-day tour by urging his hosts to open their hearts to refugees, in a country where public opinion has generally been negative towards migrants.
On Monday, he visited the Vrazhdebna refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital Sofia, which has a capacity of more than 300 but currently hosts around 50 asylum seekers.
“Today the world of migrants and refugees is a little like a cross for humanity, a cross suffered by so many people,” Pope Francis said.
He spoke of the “horrors” they had suffered in “leaving their own country and seeking to integrate themselves in another”.
In April 2018, the Council of Europe rights group voiced concern about Bulgarian efforts to integrate Middle Eastern refugees, with most relying on help from volunteers and NGOs.
A small but energetic choir of refugee children welcomed Francis with two songs in Bulgarian before presenting him with brightly-coloured drawings, after which he greeted the other refugees at the camp individually.
Iraqi refugee Soad, who has seven children and whose husband is sick, said her life was all the more difficult due to a lack of a defined immigration status and that relations with Iraqi Kurdish refugees were sometimes tense.
“The pope can do everything and change everything, because he helps everyone and especially refugees,” she said.
“We will stay in Bulgaria, the children think it’s their country now,” she added.
While President Ruman Radev assured the pope on Sunday that “Bulgarian society does not tolerate racism”, the idea of accepting refugees from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East is rejected on both the right and left of Bulgaria’s political spectrum.
The country’s Orthodox Church has also called such migration a “threat to the stability of the state” and to “ethnic balance” and the entire 274-kilometre (170-mile) Bulgarian-Turkish border is blocked by a barbed-wire fence.
– ‘Day full of emotion’ –
After the visit to the refugee camp, Francis headed to the town of Rakovski in the centre of the country, one of the centres of Bulgaria’s tiny Catholic community, which numbers around 44,000 out of a population of some seven million.
Several hundred worshippers packed into one of the town’s churches, with thousands more outside, for a service in which Francis gave 245 local children their first holy communion — the first time he has done this on a foreign trip.
One of them was the daughter of local resident Venelin Delgiyanski who described the event as “a great honour”.
“It’s a day full of emotion. Everyone is very excited as this is also a big event for our small town,” Delgiyanski said.
Later on Monday Pope Francis will return to Sofia to take part in an inter-faith “meeting for peace” to which the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has refused to send priests.
The Orthodox Church is instead sending a children’s choir to the meeting which will be attended by at least one of the capital’s Muslim leaders, a Vatican source said.
The Bulgarian church also made clear its opposition to any religious service when the pope visited Sofia’s St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Pope offered prayers there on Sunday afternoon alone.
Pope Francis’s trip also takes in North Macedonia, where he will attend a commemoration of Mother Teresa, the most famous native of the Macedonian capital Skopje.
Francis, whose papacy has been marred by a wave of child sex abuse allegations against clergy, has made improving interfaith dialogue — including with Orthodox churches — a priority.
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