ROME - Pope Francis will embark on a trip to Cyprus and Greece on Thursday. The principal focus of this visit is a theme that has been dear to this pope since the start of his papacy: the world's migration crisis. For the second time in five years, the pope will visit the island of Lesbos which has long been dealing with migrant arrivals.
Pope Francis' first stop on this 5-day trip is Cyprus, which has in recent years seen an increase in migrant arrivals.
The plight of migrants and refugees has been a major concern of the pope since his election in 2013 and he plans to meet with them on this trip. The pope will also be visiting the island of Lesbos in Greece which has also been dealing with an influx of migrant arrivals.
The pope's first visit after being picked to head the Catholic Church was to the small southern Italian island of Lampedusa, near Africa, which has borne the brunt of migrant arrivals for decades. At the time, Pope Francis gave a strong message during a Mass for migrants on the island condemning the "global indifference" to their plight.
The pope has visited Lesbos before, in April 2016, when it was home to the largest refugee camp on the European continent. On that occasion, he brought home with him 12 Muslim refugees from Syria. This time he will be repeating that gesture and has already arranged for about 50 migrants to be relocated to Italy after this visit.
Pope Francis has often called for a "reawakening of consciences," drawing attention to the condition of migrants and the need for the nations to be more responsible and united in assisting migrants. At the same time, he has called for efforts to discourage them from undertaking dangerous sea crossings.
FILE - Pope Francis meets migrants at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, April 16, 2016.
Speaking in a video message before this trip, Pope Francis spoke of all the migrants who have lost their lives at sea. On Wednesday, he referred to the migrants as "our brothers and sisters," and said the Mediterranean Sea - in his words - "Our Mediterranean Sea" - has become a huge cemetery.
The pope's thoughts went to those who, in recent years, and still today, he said, have been fleeing war and poverty, landing on the shores of the European continent or elsewhere, and who did not find hospitality, but instead hostility and even exploitation.
Pope Francis considers the current migration the biggest humanitarian catastrophe since the Second World War. He has said the only way forward to combat this phenomenon is through fraternity and integration.
The pope will have other empathic messages on this, his 35th international journey as he addresses the majority Greek Orthodox population along with the minority of 30,000 Catholics who also live on the island of Cyprus.
He is expected to speak about the need for people to be open to one another and foster understanding. In meetings with officials in Cyprus, he is also expected to address the long-running conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Pope Francis is scheduled to celebrate a Mass on Friday in Nicosia and hold an ecumenical prayer with migrants near the so-called "green line" that separates the last physically divided capital in the world.