In Powerful Speech, Pope Francis Condemns EU Leaders’ Efforts To Shut Out Refugees

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Pope Francis pose for a photo at the Vatican. CREDIT: L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO/POOL PHOTO VIA AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Pope Francis pose for a photo at the Vatican. CREDIT: L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO/POOL PHOTO VIA AP

Pope Francis criticized the “self interests” prompting European Union leaders to enforce stringent immigration policies that shut out desperate refugees during his acceptance speech for the Charlemagne Prize — an award to promote European unification — on Friday.

In remarks reminiscent of the structure of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, the pope called on leaders to embrace the vision of Europe’s founders and open up their borders to displaced people fleeing unrest in their home countries.

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“I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime, but a summons to a greater commitment on behalf of the dignity of every human being,” Francis said. “I dream of a Europe that promotes and protects the rights of everyone, without neglecting its duties toward all. I dream of a Europe of which it will not be said that its commitment to human rights was its last utopia.”

“We, the heirs of their dream, are tempted to yield to our own selfish interests and to consider putting up fences here and there,” Francis continued. Today, more than ever, he added, “their vision inspires us to build bridges and tear down walls.”

What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?

“What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?” Francis questioned. “What has happened to you, Europe … the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters? What has happened to you … the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?”

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The Charlemagne Prize is awarded to people who have made contributions to “west European understanding.” Francis is the first Argentinean and fourth non-European to win the prize.

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, and Spain’s King Felipe VI were among the world leaders present at Friday’s event. This region has been scrambling to deal with the largest arrival of displaced people since World War II. In 2015, more than one million people from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa entered the EU.

Fears of terrorism and political backlash have driven several of EU’s 28 member states to crack down on border security, putting up razor-wired fences and deporting displaced people as a deterrence strategy. Already, some states have issued quotas to accept a certain number of migrants and refugees. This has left many displaced people stranded in makeshift sites across the continent such as France’s “Jungle” and Greece’s Idomeni.

A European Union-led plan announced Wednesday would charge a steep penalty of about $287,000 per migrant for member states that fail to comply with resettlement requirements. The European Commission, the EU executive body in Brussels, and Merkel all support the plan, the Washington Post reported. However, many Central European leaders holding anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim views have opposed these resettlement efforts.

This is not the first time that Francis has condemned high-level officials to their faces over immigration policies that separate families. During his speech in front of the United States Congress last year, Francis wryly reminded congressional members that “so many of you are also descended from immigrants.” In that speech, the pope called for compassion for immigrants who show up on the southern U.S. border and who should be seen “as persons” instead of “numbers.”

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Showing compassion for displaced people has been a signature theme for Francis since the beginning of his papacy, when he took his first official trip outside Rome to the island of Lampedusa where thousands of migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea. He has called for every Catholic parish in Europe to take in a refugee family, lamenting the “global indifference” that people show for the suffering of refugees. In North America, meanwhile, the pope blessed undocumented immigrants when he traveled the border between the United States and Mexico earlier this year to commemorate the thousands of migrants who died attempting to cross into the country.