Pope, in France, Urges Europe to Open Its Arms to Refugees
By ANDREW HIGGINSNOV. 25, 2014
Pope Francis addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday.
STRASBOURG, France — Pope Francis on Tuesday told the European Parliament, an elected assembly with many anti-immigration, nationalist members, that Europe had become too “fearful and self-absorbed,” and that it needed to recover its confidence and give “acceptance and assistance” to people fleeing war and poverty.
But the pope also embraced one of the favorite themes of populist politicians who are hostile to the European Union. He warned that the 28-nation bloc faced “growing mistrust on the part of citizens toward institutions considered to be aloof, engaged in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual peoples, if not downright harmful.”
Public discontent with the European Union’s bureaucracy, widely seen as wasteful, elitist and self-serving, helped propel France’s far-right National Front party and several other once-fringe nationalist groups to strong gains in May elections for the European Parliament. In France, the National Front came ahead of all other parties.
Complaining that Europe had lost its vitality and often seemed “elderly and haggard,” the pope took a swipe at technocrats who seek to draw together Europe through rigid rules and regulations, warning that “the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.”
The European Parliament, which meets both here in this city near the German border and in the Belgian capital, Brussels, has become an emblem of the waste and detachment from ordinary people’s concerns. Those worries have drained support from the so-called European project, a half-century-long push for greater integration.
Francis, an Argentine who last year became the first non-European pope in more than a millennium, spent less than four hours in Strasbourg, the shortest foreign trip by a modern pope. After addressing the European Parliament, he spoke to the Council of Europe, a second European assembly based in Strasbourg with a palatial building, little authority and virtually no resonance with the general public.
The last time a pope addressed the European Parliament was in 1988, when Pope John Paul II faced heckling from Ian Paisley, a Protestant pastor and member of the assembly from Northern Ireland. Mr. Paisley accused the pope of being “the Antichrist,” and secularists denounced him over his insistent warnings that Europe faced ruin if it did not recover its Christian roots.
Francis, by contrast, faced no such disruptions and instead stirred repeated rounds of applause from members of Parliament. He referred to Europe’s Christian past and the dangers of losing it but focused instead on current issues such as poverty, immigration and joblessness.
John Thavis, an American writer on the Roman Catholic Church and author of “The Vatican Diaries,” said Francis had a very different take on Europe than his two immediate predecessors, a Pole and a German, for whom “Europe was the center of the universe.”
Francis, he said, shared their concern about declining Christian faith among Europeans, but “his priorities do not include picking an ideological battle with secularists” as “he is more focused on the here and now.”
In his speech to the European Parliament, Francis received particularly loud applause for remarks that seemed to challenge a largely German-scripted economic policy rooted in austerity as the cure to Europe’s economic ills.
“The time has come to promote policies which create employment, but above all, there is a need to restore dignity to labor by ensuring proper working conditions,” the pope said.
After his selection as pope last year, Francis signaled his interest in the plight of the dispossessed by making his first trip outside Rome to the Italian island of Lampedusa, near where scores of immigrants have drowned while trying to reach Europe from Africa in flimsy boats. He denounced what he called the “globalization of indifference” to the suffering of immigrants, and he returned to the theme in Strasbourg.
“We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery,” he said. “The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance.”
He added that the European Union’s failure to find a common solution had led individual countries to adopt their own measures, “which fail to take into account the human dignity of immigrants and thus contribute to slave labor and continuing social tensions.”
While generally welcomed, the pope still hit a few discordant notes. A lone activist from the feminist group Femen took off her shirt in the Strasbourg cathedral to protest his visit, and a left-wing French member of the Parliament, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, complained that the European Parliament had violated “the rule of secularism” by inviting Francis to speak.
The European Parliament, like other European institutions, has no ban on religion but has generally shunned issues of faith, seeing them as divisive and disruptive to the goal of “ever closer union” laid down in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament and Francis’ host on Tuesday, helped lead a successful campaign in 2004 to block an Italian nominee to the union’s executive arm because he had voiced personal support for the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion and homosexuality.