Derek Gatopoulos, Nicole Winfield and Elena Becatoros
MORIA, Greece - In a gesture both political and personal, Pope Francis flew 12 Syrian Muslims to Italy aboard his charter plane Saturday after an emotional visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, which has faced the brunt of Europe's migration crisis.
Refugees on the overwhelmed island fell to their knees and wept at his presence. Some 3,000 migrants on the island are facing possible deportation back to Turkey under a new deal with the European Union.
Francis said he decided only a week ago to bring the three refugee families to Italy after a Vatican official suggested it. He said he accepted the proposal "immediately" since it fit the spirit of his visit to Lesbos.
"It's a drop of water in the sea. But after this drop, the sea will never be the same," he said, quoting a well-known phrase of Mother Teresa.
During the five-hour trip, Francis implored European nations to respond to the migrant crisis on its shores "in a way that is worthy of our common humanity." The Greek island just a few miles from the Turkish coast has seen hundreds of thousands of desperate people land on its beaches and rocks in the last year, fleeing war and poverty at home.
The pope visited Lesbos alongside the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians and the head of the Church of Greece. They came to thank the Greek people for their welcome and highlight the plight of refugees as the 28-nation EU implements a controversial plan to deport them back to Turkey.
Many refugees wept at Francis' feet as he and the two Orthodox leaders approached them at the Moria refugee detention centre, where they greeted 250 people individually. Others chanted "Freedom! Freedom!" as they passed by.
Francis bent down as one young girl knelt at his feet, sobbing uncontrollably. The pope also blessed a man who wailed "Thank you, God. Thank you! Please Father, bless me!"
The Vatican said the three Syrian families, including six children, who were taken back with the pope will be supported by the Holy See and cared for initially by Italy's Catholic Sant'Egidio Community. It said the homes of all three had been bombed in Syria.
Two of the families hail from the Damascus area and the third from Deir el-Zour, a city close to the Iraqi border that the Islamic State group has been besieging for months, leading to malnutrition among area's 200,000 residents.
Francis said the three families — identified by Sant'Egidio as Hasan and Nour and their 2-year-old son, Ramy and Suhila and their three children, and Osama and Wafa and their two children — all had their documents in order and Italian visas.
"It's a small gesture," he said. "But these are the small gestures that all men and women must do to give a hand to those in need."
Francis seemed particularly shaken by the trauma the children he met at the detention centre suffered as a result of their voyages. En route home to Rome, he showed the picture one Afghan child gave him of a sun weeping over a sea where boats carrying refugees had sunk.
"If the sun is able to weep, so can we," Francis said. "A tear would do us good."
Hundreds of migrants have drowned so far this year in the waters between Greece and Turkey.
At a ceremony in the port of Lesbos to thank Greeks, Francis said he understood Europe's concern about the recent migrant influx. But he said migrants are human beings "who have faces, names and individual stories" and deserve to have their most basic human rights respected.
"God will repay this generosity," he promised.
In his remarks to the refugees, Francis said they should know that they are not alone and shouldn't lose hope. He said he wanted to hear their stories and bring the world's attention to their plight.
"We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity," he said.
Human rights groups have denounced the EU-Turkey deportation deal as an abdication of Europe's obligation to grant protection to asylum-seekers.
The March 18 deal stipulates that anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands since March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. For every Syrian sent back, the EU will take another Syrian directly from Turkey for resettlement in Europe. In return, Turkey was granted billions of euros to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there and promised that its stalled accession talks with the EU would speed up.
The Vatican said the 12 Syrians who came with the pope to Italy had been in Lesbos prior to March 20, and thus were not subject to possible deportation.
During the visit, Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and the archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos II, signed a joint declaration calling on the international community to make the protection of human lives a priority and to extend temporary asylum to those in need.
The declaration also urged political leaders to use all means to ensure that everyone, particularly Christians, can remain in their homelands and enjoy the "fundamental right to live in peace and security."
"The world will be judged by the way it has treated you," Bartholomew told the refugees. "And we will all be accountable for the way we respond to the crisis and conflict in the regions that you come from."
Francis and the two Orthodox leaders, officially divided from Catholics over a 1,000-year schism, lunched with eight of the refugees to hear their stories. They then went to the island's main port to pray together and toss floral wreaths into the sea in memory of those who didn't survive the journey.
Upon his arrival in Greece, Francis met Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the airport and thanked him for the generosity shown by the Greek people in welcoming foreigners despite their own economic troubles.
Tsipras said he was proud of Greece's response "at a time when some of our partners — even in the name of Christian Europe — were erecting walls and fences to prevent defenceless people from seeking a better life."
Hours before Francis arrived, the European border patrol agency Frontex intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of Lesbos. The refugees were detained.
The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of refugees, the poor and downtrodden the focus of his ministry as pope, denouncing the "globalization of indifference" that the world shows the less fortunate.
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome and Elena Becatoros from Athens.