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Pope visits multicultural Marseille as some in Europe talk of fences and blockades to curb migration

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The French port city of Marseille, for centuries a multiethnic and multifaith melting pot, awaited the arrival Friday of Pope Francis, who plans to amplify his call for the Mediterranean region of Europe to be a place of welcome for migrants.

The pope’s position on migration is an increasingly lonely one in Europe, where some countries are emphasizing border fences, repatriations and the possibility of a naval blockade to keep a new influx of would-be refugees out.

Francis is presiding over the closing session of a gathering of Mediterranean Catholic bishops, but his two-day visit to Marseille is aimed at sending a message well beyond the Catholic faithful to Europe, North Africa and beyond.

After a prayer at the southern French city’s basilica, Francis is scheduled to hold an interfaith prayer at a monument dedicated to those who have died at sea — a number estimated to top 28,000 since 2014, according to the International Organization of Migration.

Francis, who has long lamented that the Mediterranean Sea has become “the world’s biggest cemetery,” confirmed his visit months ago, but it comes as Italy is again seeing an increasing number of people who set off in flimsy boats from Tunisia.

After the new arrivals last week on the island of Lampedusa briefly exceeded the resident population of 6,100, Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni resurrected calls for a naval blockade and announced new centers to hold those who don’t qualify for asylum until they can be sent home.

France, for its part, beefed up patrols at its southern border with Italy, a few hours’ drive from Marseille, and increased drone surveillance of the Alps to keep newcomers from crossing over. With a European Parliament election set for next year and France’s far right challenging the centrist government’s policies, French government officials stood firm.

“France will not take in migrants from Lampedusa,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said this week on French TV network TF1. “It’s not by taking in more people that we’re going to stem a flow that obviously affects our ability to integrate” them into French society, he said.

Marseille’s archbishop, Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, who was born in Algeria and moved to France as a child, said such “aggressive” measures weren’t the answer. But he said “naive” and peacenik speeches about everyone living together happily ever after weren’t helpful either.

“The church must measure these evils well and find a path that is neither naively irenic nor aggressive out of special interests, but prophetic” by being close to migrants and living among them, Aveline told reporters in Rome before the visit.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the maritime rescue organization SOS Mediterranee, which operates a ship that assists migrants, issued Friday an “urgent call for all actors to dignify the lives of children, women and men survivors of rescues at sea.”

SOS Mediteranee co-founder Sophie Beauer said “the unfathomable death toll in the Mediterranean this year could have been prevented if the political will was there,” according to the humanitarian groups’ joint statement. “As a prominent moral and global figure … Pope Francis will use his visit to Marseille to recall the moral imperative underlying the laws and conventions that apply at sea: no one in distress should be left to drown.”

Marseille is one of the most multicultural, multireligious and multiethnic cities on the shores of the Mediterranean, long characterized by a strong presence of migrants living together in a tradition of tolerance.

Data from France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, or INSEE, shows the city of 862,000 residents had more than 124,000 immigrants in 2019, or about 14.5% of the population. The immigrant population included almost 30,000 Algerians and thousands of people from Turkey, as well as from Morocco, Tunisia and other former French colonies in Africa.

“The pope is proposing a path, as others do, whether you’re a believer or not, whether Muslim, Jew, atheist or Catholic,” Marseille Mayor Benoit Payan said. “He’s telling us that we have something in common, and that this Mediterranean must be preserved in its biodiversity, of course, but also in its human relationships.”

About 350,000 Catholic faithful were expected in the city over the weekend, including 100,000 to attend the pope’s parade on Marseille’s major avenue ahead of a Saturday Mass at the Velodrome stadium. The city was put under high security, including through kilometers (miles) of barriers and dozens of surveillance cameras deployed along Francis’ route.

His trip comes on the eve of the Catholic Church’s annual celebration of migrants and refugees. The theme this year notes the internationally recognized right to migrate but also the right to not migrate, and to live at home safely and securely.

“They choose to leave, but because they did not necessarily have the choice to stay,” Aveline said of the intended message. “You seldom leave your country with joy in your heart.”

The Catholic Church has been working with other evangelical churches to provide legal ways for migrants to reach Europe, so-called humanitarian corridors that so far have brought more than 6,000 refugees to Italy.

Marco Impagliazzo, head of the Sant’Egidio Community that is helping organize the corridors, said the number of migrants arriving to Italy by boat this year are high but by no means constitutes an emergency.

Migration, he said, isn’t an emergency but rather “a long-term problem, a structural phenomenon that requires medium and long-term solutions” that could also be of enormous benefit to Italy, given its aging population.

Impagliazzo proposed increasing the number of humanitarian visas granted and restoring funding for local community programs to teach new migrants Italian — a relatively low-cost investment that is crucial to successfully integrating them in society.

Njifon Njiemessa, a student from Cameroon who came to Italy in May through a humanitarian corridor, said he hoped to return one day to Cameroon, but for now he hoped to integrate into Italian society.

“If there is any possibility of pushing my studies, it will be welcome, because my dream, my main dream, is to, is still to be useful for those that are back in Cameroon, because my mission is to help those that are there,” Njiemessa told reporters.


Macpherson reported from Marseille, France. AP journalist Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report from Marseille.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


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