VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis may visit the Greek island of Lesbos as early as next week to show solidarity with refugees who are being deported back to Turkey under the European Union's controversial program to ease Europe's migrant problem.
Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, has been outspoken about Europe's moral obligation to welcome refugees and a possible visit to Greece could embarrass EU leaders already under fire from human rights groups over the deportations.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Tuesday that no decision had been made but in an email to The Associated Press he said "I don't deny that there are contacts about a possible trip."
A Greek ecclesiastic website, Dogma, reported Tuesday that Francis was planning to visit refugees on Lesbos on April 15 along with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos.
The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, the decision-making body of the Greek church, said Francis had asked to come to highlight the plight of refugees and the request had been accepted.
A statement from the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate confirmed that Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, would visit Lesbos to highlight the plight of the refugees.
Francis has made the plight of migrants a priority of his three-year pontificate, insisting in particular that Europe and other countries open their doors and hearts to people fleeing persecution and poverty.
He told the Vatican's diplomatic corps in January that Europe had the means to welcome refugees without compromising its security or culture and that the continent bore the "moral responsibility" to care for others who have fled their homes to seek a better life.
A controversial EU plan to stem the flow of refugees began Monday with more than 200 people deported from Lesbos and the Greek island of Chios back to Turkey. Human rights organizations have denounced the deportations as the undoing of Europe's obligations to protect refugees.
European officials insist the EU-Turkey agreement is the only way to deter people from heading to Greece from the nearby Turkish coast.
Under the deal, those who arrived on or after March 20 will be sent back to Turkey unless they qualify for asylum. For every Syrian returned, Europe will take a Syrian to be resettled in an EU country.
The Church of Greece said Tuesday that visit of the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches would send a "very strong signal" about the need to help refugees and protect Christians "who are cruelly suffering" in the Middle East.
Becatoros reported from Athens.