Pope returns with 12 refugees after visit to Greek island

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Pope Francis leaves Greece with 12 Syrian refugees

LESBOS, Greece April 16 (Reuters) - Pope Francis took three families of Syrian refugees back to Rome on Saturday after visiting the frontline of Europe's migrant crisis at a camp in Greece where migrants wept at his feet, kissed his hand and begged for help.

At a sprawling fenced complex on the Aegean island of Lesbos, adults and children broke down in tears before the head of the Roman Catholic church, after their onward journey to Europe was cut short by an EU decision to block a migrant route used by a million people fleeing conflict since early 2015.

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While borders have now largely been shut for migrants, Francis symbolically took a small group of refugees with him on his aircraft as he left the island after a five-hour visit.

"The Pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees, accompanying on his plane to Rome three families of refugees from Syria, 12 people in all, including six children," a statement issued by the Vatican said.

The individuals were selected from lots drawn, media reports said. They had arrived on Lesbos before a deal between the EU and Turkey came into effect to halt the migrant flow on March 20 and were staying at a different, open camp on the island.

See photos from Pope Francis' visit to Greece:

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Pope Francis in Greece with migrants and refugees
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Pope returns with 12 refugees after visit to Greek island
LESBOS, GREECE - APRIL 16 : Pope Francis arrives at the port of Mytilene to make a speech in memory of refugees who have died at sea trying to reach Europe, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, 16 April 2016. (Photo by Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Migrants and refugees stand at a fence of the Moria detention center during a visit of Pope Francis in Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, on April 16, 2016. 'We are all migrants,' Pope Francis said on April 16 on a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos to give hope to thousands facing deportation after risking their lives to reach Europe. The pontiff's visit came amid continuing criticism of a deal reached last month to end Europe's refugee crisis by sending all irregular migrants who land in Greece back to Turkey. / AFP / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
LESBOS, GREECE - APRIL 16 : Pope Francis makes a speech at the port of Mytilene in memory of refugees who have died at sea trying to reach Europe, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, 16 April 2016. (Photo by Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A protester holds up a placard reading 'One world, one love' as solidarity groups, volunteers and pro-migrant groups protest against the EU-Turkey deal at the port of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos on April 16, 2016, during the visit of the Pope Francis and Orthodox religious leaders. 'We are all migrants,' Pope Francis said on April 16 on a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos to give hope to thousands facing deportation after risking their lives to reach Europe. The pontiff's visit came amid continuing criticism of a deal reached last month to end Europe's refugee crisis by sending all irregular migrants who land in Greece back to Turkey. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis looks on as he delivers a speech at the port of Mytilene where he met local population and threw a wreath of flowers in memory of the migrants died at sea trying to reach Europe, on the Greek island of Lesbos, April 16, 2016. REUTERS/Filippo Monteforte/Pool
Pope Francis (L) and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew pray for the victims of migration as a bird flies past at the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16, 2016. 'We are all migrants,' Pope Francis said on April 16 on a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos to give hope to thousands facing deportation after risking their lives to reach Europe. The pontiff's visit came amid continuing criticism of a deal reached last month to end Europe's refugee crisis by sending all irregular migrants who land in Greece back to Turkey. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
LESBOS, GREECE - APRIL 16 : Pope Francis makes a speech at the port of Mytilene in memory of refugees who have died at sea trying to reach Europe, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, 16 April 2016. (Photo by Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MYTILENE, GREECE - APRIL 16: Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Pope Francis and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronimos II during a memorial for the victims of migration at the port of Mytilene on April 16, 2016 in Mytilene, Lesbos, Greece. Pope Francis will visit migrants at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos along with Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Ieronimos II. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Pope Francis shows drawings made by children on his flight back to Rome following a visit at the Moria refugee camp on April 16, 2016 in the Greek island of Lesbos. Twelve Syrian refugees were accompanying Pope Francis on his return flight to Rome after his visit to Lesbos on Saturday and will be housed in the Vatican, the Holy See said. Pope Francis, Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II visit Lesbos today to turn the spotlight on Europe's controversial deal with Turkey to end an unprecedented refugee crisis. AFP PHOTO POOL / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP / POOL / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis shows drawings made by children on his flight back to Rome following a visit at the Moria refugee camp on April 16, 2016 in the Greek island of Lesbos. Twelve Syrian refugees were accompanying Pope Francis on his return flight to Rome after his visit to Lesbos on Saturday and will be housed in the Vatican, the Holy See said. Pope Francis, Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II visit Lesbos today to turn the spotlight on Europe's controversial deal with Turkey to end an unprecedented refugee crisis. AFP PHOTO POOL / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP / POOL / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Sant'Egidio, a Christian community which offers help for those in need and is headquartered in Rome, will be looking after the families.

"It's one way to show the entire world that we should accept refugees," Petros Vasiliadis, a Greek biblical scholar and retired theology professor said of the pontiff's gesture. "It may motivate other churches to do the same."

Francis, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, shook hands with hundreds of people as hundreds more were penned behind metal barriers at the Moria camp, which holds some 3,000 people.

"Freedom, freedom," migrants chanted as the pope walked through the hillside facility in scorching sun. Some women ululated.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

"I want to tell you, you are not alone," Francis said in a speech at the camp.

"As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. Do not lose hope!" he said, flanked by Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and Greek Archbishop Ieronymos.

On at least three occasions, adults fell to the feet of the pontiff, weeping and begging for help. One woman wearing a crucifix broke through a police cordon and flung herself at Francis's feet.

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"No camp, no camp," sobbed the woman, who appeared to be in her early thirties. "I want to go."

In a tent where Francis met with migrants, a little girl with pigtails dressed in pink and white bowed at his feet. As he helped her up, she cried uncontrollably. An adult man broke down. Migrants slipped pieces of paper into his hand as Francis passed by, which he handed to an aide.

The pope has often defended refugees and urged Catholic parishes in Europe to host them. His first trip after becoming pontiff in 2013 was to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which, like Lesbos, has received thousands of refugees.

Hundreds of people have died making the short but precarious crossing from Turkey to the Lesbos shores in inflatable dinghies in the past year, and the island is full of unmarked graves.

RELATED: See photos of Pope Francis' recent trip to Mexico:

23 PHOTOS
Pope Francis visits Mexico
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Pope returns with 12 refugees after visit to Greek island
Bishops attend the open-air mass by Pope Francis in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO/GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
ECATEPEC, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 14: People sings during a mass at Ecatepec on February 14, 2016 in Ecatepec, Mexico. Pope Francis is on a five-day visit in Mexico from February 12 to 17 where he is expected to visit five states. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images)
A young girl waits for the passage of Pope Francis on his way to the Nuncianture, in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. Francis became the first pope to enter Mexico's National Palace to meet President Enrique Pena Nieto, as he starts a cross-country tour that will highlight the country's violence and migration troubles. AFP PHOTO. AFP PHOTO/MARIO VAZQUEZ / AFP / MARIO VAZQUEZ (Photo credit should read MARIO VAZQUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Catholic faithful wait for the arrival of Pope Francis in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- where he is to celebrate an open-air mass, on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO/ JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis officiates an open-air mass in Ecatepec, near Mexico City, on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis urged Mexicans on Sunday to turn their country into a land of opportunity where there is no need to emigrate or mourn victims 'of the merchants of death.' AFP PHOTO/ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
ECATEPEC, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 14: Pope Francis wlaks with a censer during a mass for the people at Ecatepec on February 14, 2016 in Ecatepec, Mexico. Pope Francis is on a five days visit in Mexico from February 12 to 17 where he is expected to visit five states. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves from the popemobile on his way to the cathedral, in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. Francis became the first pope to enter Mexico's National Palace to meet President Enrique Pena Nieto, as he starts a cross-country tour that will highlight the country's violence and migration troubles. AFP PHOTO/GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Catholic faithfuls take communion during an open-air mass by Pope Francis in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves at the crowd from the Popemobile after celebrating an open-air mass in Ecatepec, near Mexico City on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis urged Mexicans on Sunday to turn their country into a land of opportunity where there is no need to emigrate or mourn victims 'of the merchants of death.'. AFP PHOTO/ JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar Fuentes (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR FUENTES/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves from the popemobile upon arrival in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- where he is to celebrate an open-air mass, on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
ECATEPEC, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 14: Faithful prays after receiving the communion wafer during a mass for the people at Ecatepec on February 14, 2016 in Ecatepec, Mexico. Pope Francis is on a five days visit in Mexico from February 12 to 17 where he is expected to visit five states. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images)
A security member stands guard next to a graffiti depicting Pope Francis in Ecatepec --a rough, crime-plagued Mexico City suburb-- where he will celebrate an open-air mass, on February 14, 2016. Pope Francis has chosen to visit some of Mexico's most troubled regions during his five-day trip to the world's second most populous Catholic country. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Faithfuyl welcome Pope Francis as he arrives to celebrate an open-air Holy Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico on February 13, 2016. Pope Francis is in Mexico for a trip encompassing two of the defining themes of his papacy: bridge-building diplomacy and his concern for migrants seeking a better life. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate a Holy Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico on February 13, 2016. Pope Francis is in Mexico for a trip encompassing two of the defining themes of his papacy: bridge-building diplomacy and his concern for migrants seeking a better life. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) arrives to celebrate a Holy Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico on February 13, 2016. Pope Francis is in Mexico for a trip encompassing two of the defining themes of his papacy: bridge-building diplomacy and his concern for migrants seeking a better life. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) at an open-air mass at the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. The pope urged Mexican bishops Saturday to take on drug trafficking with 'prophetic courage,' warning that it represents a moral challenge to society and the church. AFP PHOTO / Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis officiates an open-air mass at the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. The pope urged Mexican bishops Saturday to take on drug trafficking with 'prophetic courage,' warning that it represents a moral challenge to society and the church. AFP PHOTO / Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 13: Pope Francis speaks during a mass for the people at Basilica de Guadalupe on February 13, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. Pope Francis is on a five-day visit in Mexico from February 12 to 17 where he is expected to visit five states. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (R) officiates an open-air mass at the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City on February 13, 2016. The pope urged Mexican bishops Saturday to take on drug trafficking with 'prophetic courage,' warning that it represents a moral challenge to society and the church. AFP PHOTO / Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Pope Francis wears a traditional Mexican sombrero hat received as a gift by a Mexican journalist on February 12, 2016, aboard the plane to Havana. Pope Francis headed to Cuba on Friday looking to heal a 1,000-year-old rift in Christianity before embarking on a tour of Mexico dominated by modern day problems of drug-related violence and migration. / AFP / POOL / ALESSANDRO DI MEO (Photo credit should read ALESSANDRO DI MEO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves from the Popemobile upon his arrival in Mexico City on February 12, 2016. Catholic faithful flocked to the streets of Mexico City to greet Pope Francis on Friday after the pontiff held a historic meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Cuba. AFP PHOTO/Yuri Cortez / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) waves next to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (R) and First Lady Angelica Rivera (L) upon his arrival at Benito Juarez international airport in Mexico City on February 12, 2016. Catholic faithful flocked to the streets of Mexico City to greet Pope Francis on Friday after the pontiff held a historic meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Cuba. AFP PHOTO/RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP / RONALDO SCHEMIDT (Photo credit should read RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
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Francis and Orthodox leaders later threw wreaths into the sea to commemorate those who died. They stood silently, with heads bowed, as wreaths of yellow and white flowers bobbed over the water.

The migrant crisis has added to an already heavy burden upon Greece, which has received three international bailouts since 2010.

Francis said he admired the Greek people, saying they had "kept open their hearts and doors."

"Many ordinary men and women have made available the little they have and shared it with those who lost everything. God will repay this generosity," he said.

But religious leaders appeared less charitable towards the rest of Europe. A joint declaration by the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches cited a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the biblical New Testament - all will be judged by their actions. (Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Mark Potter and Gareth Jones)

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