Pope Francis looks at children singing for him during his visit to a refugee center on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria, Monday, May 6, 2019. Pope Francis is visiting Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest country and one that taken a hard line against migrants, a stance that conflicts with the pontiff's view that reaching out to vulnerable people is a moral imperative. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope in Bulgaria tells refugees they bear cross of humanity

May 06, 2019 - 2:58 am

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Pope Francis met Monday with refugees in Bulgaria's showcase refugee center and told them they are bearing the "cross of humanity," after he urged the migrant-skeptic government to not close its eyes to their suffering.

Refugee children from Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere sang for Francis on Monday at the Vrazhdebna center, located in a school refurbished with EU funds on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

Francis thanked the refugees for their joy and hope, and told them that he knows well the pain of leaving behind one's country. He compared their suffering to the cross Christ bore.

"Today, the world of migrants and refugees is a kind of cross, the cross of humanity," Francis said. "It's a cross that many people suffer."

Bulgaria's center-right government has been criticized by human rights groups and the European Council for its treatment of asylum-seekers, particularly unaccompanied minors. The government, which includes three nationalist, anti-migrant parties, has called for the EU to close its borders to migrants and has sealed off its own border with Turkey with a barbed-wire fence.

Francis is on the second-day of a three-day visit to the Balkans. Upon his arrival Sunday, he urged Bulgarians to not be indifferent to the plight of migrants and refugees, saying many are fleeing war, conflict and abject poverty in search of a better life. He noted that Bulgaria itself was losing thousands of its own citizens who were seeking better opportunities elsewhere in the European Union. Bulgaria is the poorest of the EU's 28 nations, saddled by widespread corruption.

"I respectfully suggest that you not close your eyes, your hearts or your hands — in accordance with your best tradition — to those who knock at your door," he told government officials at the presidential palace in Sofia.

The Argentine pope has made the plight of migrants and refugees a hallmark of his papacy, urging governments to build bridges, not walls, and to do what they can to welcome and integrate refugees. His visit falls just three weeks before the European Parliament elections across the EU in which nationalist, anti-migrant parties are expected to make a solid showing

Later Monday, Francis celebrates Mass in the Catholic stronghold of Rakovsky and celebrates First Communion for more than 200 children. He wraps up the day with a peace event back in Sofia.

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