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The pope's big fat Greek itinerary

Pope Francis in a video message ahead of his December visit to Cyprus and Greece. Credit: Vatican Media/youtube.

Pope Francis travels Thursday to Greece and Cyprus, the third international trip for the pontiff in 2021.

Here’s what you need to know about the trip:

Where is he going?

Thursday, December 2

The pope will fly from Rome to Lanarca, a city on the southern coast of Cyprus.

He’ll drive about 45 minutes to Nicosia, capital of both the Republic of Cyprus, and of the disputed northern portion of Cyprus, which, supported by Turkey, claims independence from the rest of the country.

In Nicosia, the pope will meet with priests, deacons, and lay catechists in the city’s cathedral.

The pope will visit the Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, and then give a speech to civic authorities.

Friday, December 3

The pope will meet with Orthodox Church leaders, celebrate Mass in a stadium, and then attend a prayer service with migrants.

Saturday, December 4

The pope will fly to Athens. He’ll meet Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, connect with Hieronymos II, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. He’ll then have a meeting with bishops, priests, and other Church leaders, followed by a private meeting with Greek Jesuits.

Sunday, December 5

Pope Francis will fly to Mytilene, a city on the Greek island of Lesbos.

He’s going there to meet with refugees — Mytilene has been the entrance point for thousands of refugees coming to Europe from Africa and the Middle East. It was home to Europe’s largest refugee camp, which burned down last year,

After Lesbos, The pope will go back to Athens, have Mass in a concert hall.

Monday, December 6

The pope will meet with young people and government officials, and then head back to Rome.

Why is he going?

In a video message ahead of the trip, Pope Francis said, “I come with joy, precisely in the name of the Gospel, in the footsteps of the first great missionaries, especially the Apostles Paul and Barnabas. It is good to return to the origins and it is important for the Church to rediscover the joy of the Gospel. It is with this spirit that I am preparing for this pilgrimage to the wellsprings, which I ask everyone to help me prepare with their prayers.”

The pope’s trip has a few goals.

Pope Francis aims to:

Strengthen ties between Orthodox Christians and Catholics. Greek and Cyprus have predominantly Orthodox populations, and both are historically important centers of Orthodoxy. The pope’s visits with Orthodox leaders, and public events, will aim to call Orthodox and Catholic Christians to greater unity.

Call attention to the situation of migrants. In both Cyprus and Greece, countries receiving Middle Eastern and African migrants, the pope will spend time with migrants and refugees.

In Greece he’ll visit a city that once held the largest refugee camp in Europe, which was called an “open-air prison” by critics, and was burned in a fire set by four Afghan residents of the camp in 2020. The fire displaced more than 12,000 refugees living in the camp.

The pope’s visit will also call attention to the situation in Cyprus, an island which has been divided for decades, with a northern portion of the island, populated by Turkish speaking Cypriots, claiming independence. Supported by Turkey, the region is administered separately from the rest of the island. It is not clear the extent to which the pope will address the situation, but it will be impossible to avoid altogether, and the pope is expected to call for continued talks to resolve the conflict.

What will be the headlines?

The pope is expected to mention division in Cyprus, and may call for ongoing bilateral talks to end the unusual political situation of the island. He will also urge Christian unity. But the biggest headlines during the visit will likely be reserved for the pope’s remarks on Europe’s responsibilities to refugees and asylum seekers on the continent.

When Pope Francis travels, the most striking news stories usually come after the visit, when reporters cover the airborne papal press conferences which have produced some of Francis’ most memorable lines. It’s not known what the pope might say, especially on the short flight from Athens to Rome, but it’s possible that reporters will ask him about his alleged support for President Joe Biden’s reception of Holy Communion, a topic which drew global attention in late October.

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