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Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis

Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne (L) greets Pope Francis upon his arrival at Marseille International Airport (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Pope Francis arrived in Marseille on Friday for a two-day visit focused on the Mediterranean and migration, bringing to France a message of tolerance amid bitter debate over how Europe manages asylum seekers.

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Marseille was decked out in the yellow and white colours of the Vatican for the first visit by a pope to France's second-largest city in 500 years, where 100,000 people are expected to turn out to see the pontiff in his "popemobile" on Saturday.

The 86-year-old is visiting to take part in a meeting of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops and young people -- but his trip comes at a politically sensitive time.

The pontiff disembarked at Marseille airport from his plane away from the view of cameras. He was then wheeled in a wheelchair towards Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who was waiting on the airport tarmac to greet him, an AFP correspondent said.

He then stood up from his wheelchair to acknowledge the welcome of a military band.

A surge in migrant boats arriving from North Africa on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week trigged outrage in Italy and a heated debate across Europe over how to share responsibility for the numbers.

Marseille is a historic gateway for immigrants and also home to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe, many of which are plagued by drug trafficking.

The desperate conditions that cause many people to leave their homes for a new life, and the risks they take to do so, have been a key theme during Francis's decade as head of the Catholic Church.

Speaking at the Vatican on Sunday, he noted that migration "represents a challenge that is not easy... but which must be faced together".

He emphasised the need for "fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in first place".

Ahead of what will be his 44th overseas trip, Francis acknowledged this month that papal voyages were not as easy as they used to be.

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He underwent hernia surgery in June, less than two years after having colon surgery, and routinely uses a wheelchair because of a troublesome knee.

Meeting pilgrims

Despite the decline in France of Catholicism, the once dominant faith, the pope's visit has sparked huge enthusiasm, with almost 60,000 people expected at a mass on Saturday afternoon.

"Habemus papam" headlined regional newspaper La Provence, using the famous Latin phrase meaning "We have a pope!" used  on the election of a pontiff.

For Joseph Achji, a 25-year-old Syrian Christian originally from Aleppo, the pope's visit is a "chance of a lifetime".

He will head to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a symbolic monument overlooking the city, for a prayer with local clergy on Friday afternoon.

That will be followed by a moment of meditation with representatives of other religions at a memorial to sailors and migrants lost at sea.

The United Nations estimates that more than 28,000 migrants who have tried to cross the Mediterranean since 2014 have gone missing.

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After 8,500 migrants landed on Lampedusa in three days earlier this month, the European Union promised more help for Rome.

But France, amid wrangling over a draft law governing migrant arrivals there, said it would not accept anyone from the island.

"We are expecting very strong words" from the pope, said Francois Thomas, head of Marseille-based SOS Mediterranee, which operates a migrant rescue boat in the sea.

"It is our humanity that is sinking if Europe does not do something."

Mass with Macron

On Saturday morning, Francis will take part in the closing session of the "Mediterranean Meetings" event.

As well as migration, it will cover issues such as economic inequality and climate change -- also themes close to the pope's heart.

On Saturday afternoon, Francis will lead a mass at the Velodrome stadium, with French President Emmanuel Macron among those due to attend.

Macron's attendance has sparked controversy among left-wing politicians in the officially secular country.

Some right-wing politicians have criticised the pope's stance on migrants -- but Marseille mayor Benoit Payan said the pontiff "has a universal message... of peace".

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Francky Domingo, who runs a migrant association in Marseille, said he hoped the visit would "give back a little hope" and "ease tensions at the political level".

"Marseille is a cosmopolitan city, multicultural, multi-faith," he told AFP, but faces "enormous difficulties".

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