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story.lead_photo.caption Migrants at a makeshift camp in Idomeni, Greece, watch fighter jets flying above the camp during a Greek army exercise Thursday. - Photo by AP / AMEL EMRIC

ATHENS, Greece -- The leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches are heading to a Greek island to voice solidarity with those who have streamed in fleeing war, poverty and persecution.

Saturday's high-powered visit to Lesbos by Pope Francis; Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians; and Athens Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece, could embarrass EU leaders already under fire from human-rights groups.

The Vatican said Thursday that Francis' five-hour visit to Lesbos will be purely humanitarian and religious in nature, not political, and isn't meant as a criticism of the deportation program. But spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi acknowledged that Francis has previously told Europe it had a "moral obligation" to welcome refugees, and that it was "evident" that the humanitarian crisis in Europe exists only because political solutions to regional conflicts haven't been found.

On Wednesday, Francis said he and the Orthodox leaders intended "to express closeness and solidarity both to the refugees and to the Lesbos citizens and all the Greek people who are so generous in welcoming [refugees]."

All three have been outspoken on the migrant issue, and the Church of Greece has mounted an aid effort for those flowing through Greece as well as caring for Greeks impoverished by their country's financial crisis.

The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis made his first papal visit outside Rome nearly two years ago to Lampedusa, a rocky Italian island near Africa and the main landing point for migrants smuggled across the Mediterranean from Libya or Tunisia. There, he denounced the "globalization of indifference" shown to migrants.

Bartholomew has been just as outspoken. In his Christmas message, he said the fact that children are forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives was "a disgrace for humankind."

For his part, Ieronymos on Tuesday blasted European countries' decision to build border fences to prevent migrants from entering and said Greece didn't have the capability to offer shelter to all those fleeing their homelands.

The Lesbos visit, announced last week, was instigated by a suggestion from Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based "first among equals" in global Orthodoxy, who has made forging closer ties with the Catholic Church a cornerstone of his tenure as patriarch and enjoys good relations with Francis.

The religious leaders' first stop on Lesbos will be Moria, a migrant camp through which hundreds of thousands have passed on their way north. On March 20, the doors of the reception and registration center were locked and those living there prevented from leaving after it was turned into a detention center as part of the deal.

Bartholomew, Francis and Ieronymos will spend nearly an hour individually greeting about 250 refugees and other migrants, and then have lunch inside a cargo container nearby with eight refugee representatives, the Vatican said. Short speeches and a joint declaration are planned.

They will then head to the island's capital and main port of Mytilene to meet residents and the small Catholic community, and lead prayers for the many people who drowned trying to get to Europe. Each of the leaders will toss a floral reef into the sea in memory of the dead.

Their presence on Lesbos, where more than half of all those heading to Europe first landed, will be highly symbolic at a time of growing criticism of the March 18 EU-Turkey deal, which stipulates anyone arriving on Greek islands on or after March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

For every Syrian sent back, the EU will take another Syrian directly from Turkey for resettlement in Europe. In return, Turkey was granted concessions including billions of dollars to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there, and a speeding up of its stalled accession talks with the EU.

Separately, Germany's governing parties agreed Thursday to get newcomers into the workforce faster, promote broader German language skills and prevent migrant ghettos from forming in big cities.

The measures, which will be discussed with state governors before they're presented to Parliament, seek to strike a balance between giving migrants easier access to jobs and integration courses while also increasing expectations of them.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters the proposals make clear "there are duties and obligations for all who come to us."

The measures foresee creating 100,000 government-funded "job opportunities" for migrants, according to a copy of the plan. They also would suspend for three years a rule that excludes asylum seekers from jobs unless no German or EU citizen can fill them.

"The core idea is to attempt to integrate as many people in the labor force as possible," Merkel said.

Information for this article was contributed by David Rising of The Associated Press.

A Section on 04/15/2016

Print Headline: Together, church leaders to visit migrants

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