Pope Francis, no stranger to lending his moral authority to a range of causes, was meeting with some migrants at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew in Rome on Saturday, according to the BBC, and relayed a story about a Middle Eastern refugee whose wife was killed by Islamist militants for holding on to her crucifix.
“I don’t know if he managed to leave that concentration camp,” the pope said. “Because many of them are concentration … because there is a great number of people left there inside them.”
As the pontiff’s words rocketed around the world, the American Jewish Committee, an advocate for Jewish causes, released a statement saying it understood the pontiff’s sentiments but didn’t agree with his comparison.
“The conditions in which migrants are currently living in some European countries may well be difficult, and deserve still greater international attention, but concentration camps they certainly are not,” AJC chief executive David Harris said in the statement on the group’s website.
“The Nazis and their allies erected and used concentration camps for slave labor and the extermination of millions of people during World War II. There is no comparison to the magnitude of that tragedy.”
“We respectfully urge the Pope to reconsider his regrettable choice of words,” Harris added. “Precision of language and facts is absolutely essential when making any historical reference, all the more so when coming from such a prominent and admired world figure.”
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 65.3 million forcibly displaced people across the world. Of the 21.3 million refugees in the world, half are children. The Calais camp for migrants in northern France, nicknamed “the Jungle,” had “cramped makeshift tents plagued by rats, water sources contaminated by (feces) and inhabitants suffering from tuberculosis, scabies and post-traumatic stress,” the Guardian reported.
And in Greece, Interior Minister Panagiotis Kouroumblis, touring the Idomeni camp on the border with Macedonia, compared it to a concentration camp. Idomeni was where a photo emerged of two Syrian parents washing their newborn baby, Bayan, in a puddle.
“I do not hesitate to say that this is a modern-day Dachau, a result of the logic of closed borders,” he said. “Whoever comes here takes several blows to the stomach.”
The pope hasn’t hesitated to lend his moral voice to controversial subjects. Last summer, he gave Catholic priests the authority to forgive women who’ve had abortions.
He has spoken out on migrant issues again and again, emphasizing that it’s incumbent on all Christians to help refugees and others who are struggling, as Jesus said in Matthew 25.
Last year, after a flood of anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of a terrorist attack in Brussels, Francis washed the feet of immigrants at a center for asylum seekers in Rome.
“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he said while meeting with pilgrims in October, according to Catholic News Services. “If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”