By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – A group of migrants from refugee camps in Cyprus who are being resettled in Italy at Pope Francis’ expense helped the pontiff celebrate his 85th birthday on Friday.
“You saved us,” an African boy told the pope during a meeting in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace a day after the 12 arrived from Cyprus.
They wished him a happy birthday and gave him a painting made by an Afghan refugee showing migrants crossing the sea.
They come from Congo Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Somalia and Syria and are the first of 50 people from camps in Cyprus that the pope has pledged to provide for. The rest are due to arrive in the next few months and will be looked after and integrated into Italian society by the Catholic Sant’ Egidio charity group.
The first group included doctors and information technology workers in their native countries, among others.
The pope will provide for 50 migrants to resettle in Italy as part of a deal between Italy, the Vatican and Cyprus to commemorate his trip earlier this month to the Mediterranean island.
Francis, who was elected the first pontiff from Latin America in 2013, has made defence of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his pontificate.
Ethnically-divided Cyprus, the closest European Union member state to the Middle East, has struggled to manage an influx of migrants and refugees in the past two years.
Many asylum seekers access the southern government-controlled areas through the “Green Line” splitting the island after previously arriving in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in its north.
The pope also visited Greece during the Dec. 2-6 trip, including a stop at a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos.
During a previous visit in 2016, he left Lesbos, then at the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis, taking 12 Syrian refugees with him.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Susan Fenton)