Opening the second day of his visit to Bulgaria, Pope Francis visited the Vrazhdebna refugee reception centre in capital city Sofia, receiving a warm reception from the about 50 children and parents accommodated at the centre.
At the centre, Roman Catholic charitable organisation Caritas Sofia provides humanitarian support for those accommodated there. At the Vrazhdebna centre, food, health care and orientation are provided.
Pope Francis has made repeated references to the need for compassion towards refugees.
A day before his visit to Vrazhdebna, the Pope said that Bulgaria is facing the phenomenon, “resulting from the attempts to cross its borders by people seeking salvation from wars and conflicts and poverty, seeking to reach the wealthiest regions of the European continent, to find new opportunities of existing or simply a safe haven”.
“To all of you, who are familiar with the drama of emigration, I respectfully suggest that you do not close your eyes, your heart or your hand – in accordance with your tradition – to those who knock at your gates,” Pope Francis said.
At the centre, which accommodates people mainly from Syria and Iraq, Pope Francis was welcomed with a special programme of songs by the children, who also made artworks in his honour.
“Thank you very much for your hospitality, thank the children for their so beautiful songs, they are the ones who bring joy in your path that is filled with pain because you had to leave your homeland and look for another, but there is always hope,” the Pope said.
Pope Francis said that the experience of migrants and refugees is “a cross for humanity and the cross of so many people who suffer”.
He told the residents of the centre: “The Lord bless you, pray for me”.
Bulgaria became a mainly transit country for refugees fleeing the war in Syria in 2013/2014. In more recent years, there has been a significant decrease in the number of refugees and migrants reaching the country, which has built an expensive barrier at its border with Turkey, the effectiveness of which has frequently been called into question. Amid the refugee crisis, the military was deployed to back up border police.
There has been hostility to Bulgaria receiving refugees, including on the part of nationalist and populist parties as well as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the country’s security forces have been the subject of allegations of brutality towards those seeking to cross the border into Bulgaria or onwards towards the West.
Currently, in contrast to the situation of five years ago, refugee accommodation centres in Bulgaria are at well below capacity, according to official figures.