(MENAFN- The Peninsula) AFP
Vatican City: Pope Francis heads Friday to Marseille for a two-day visit focused on the Mediterranean and migration, and bringing a message of tolerance amid bitter debate over how Europe manages asylum seekers.
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 in the 86-year-old's decade as head of the worldwide Catholic Church.
But his visit to the French port city, to take part in a meeting of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops and young people, puts him at the centre of a political storm.
A surge in migrant boats arriving from North Africa on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week triggered outrage both in Italy and beyond.
The European Union promised more help for Rome while France, amid wrangling over a draft law governing migrant arrivals there, said it would not accept anyone from Lampedusa.
Migration "represents a challenge that is not easy, as we also see from the news in recent days, but which must be faced together", Francis said at the Vatican on Sunday.
"It is essential for the future of all, which will be prosperous only if it is built on fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in first place."
The Pope, who prefers to visit small Catholic communities around the world, has made clear that his trip is not to France but specifically Marseille.
He becomes the first Pope in 500 years to visit the city, a historic gateway for immigrants and also home to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe, many of which are plagued by drug trafficking.
Ahead of what will be his 44th overseas trip, and in increasingly fragile health, Francis admitted this month that papal voyages were not as easy as they used to be.
He underwent hernia surgery in June, less than two years after having colon surgery, and routinely uses a wheelchair due to a troublesome knee.