Pope Francis and King Mohammed VI walk on the Hassan Tower esplanade in Rabat, Morocco. (Ciro Fusco/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Visiting a country used as a launch point for Africans and others trying to reach Europe, Pope Francis took aim Saturday at the world’s hardening anti-migrant sentiments and said problems could never be solved by “raising barriers” or “fomenting fear of others.”

Morocco has a minuscule Roman Catholic population, but the North African country — separated from Spain by a mere eight-mile-wide strip of water — served as a fitting stage for Francis’s emphasis on migration.

For Francis, it has become a personal priority that has gained more urgency amid shut-the-door political movements in the United States and across Europe.

Francis also used the visit to highlight Morocco as a moderate example of Islam, and made a case for Christian-Muslim cooperation just two weeks after hate-fueled mosque shootings in New Zealand that claimed 50 lives.

Francis delivered the last of his two speeches Saturday at a Catholic charity that aids migrants. He met with several migrants from various African nations who typified some of the region’s mass migration trends: trying to make it to Europe and waiting for their chance. The migrants at the charity included five young children, who danced for Francis in a short performance.

“Every person has the right to the future,” Francis said, at one point looking at those children.

The pontiff, entering the seventh year of his papacy, has become an outlying voice advocating that migrants be welcomed with open arms — a stance that is rare among political leaders across the West.


Pope Francis meets migrants at the diocesan Caritas center in Rabat. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

But the message was particularly resonant in Morocco, which last year became the primary passageway for migrants trying to reach Europe after the European Union and the hard-line Italian government worked to close off other routes across the Mediterranean.

Moroccan officials have indicated that smuggling networks have shifted, too.

Migration numbers to Europe are down drastically from the peak in 2015. But individual countries still feel pressure. Morocco has faced criticism from humanitarian groups for allegedly rounding up undocumented migrants and transferring them to remote parts of the country.

Spain, meantime, has faced its own dilemmas: Anti-migration sentiment is on the rise ahead of April 28 general elections. And authorities in Barcelona in January prohibited a humanitarian ship from leaving port for a migrant rescue mission in the Mediterranean.

Francis, in a recently conducted interview with a Spanish journalist, called it an “injustice” that the Open Arms boat had been prevented from operating. Other governments across Europe have taken steps of their own to curtail the work of nongovernmental organization rescue vessels.

“Why do they do it?” Francis asked. “To drown them?”

Francis has repeatedly placed migration at the center of his papacy. In 2016, after a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, he ushered 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome aboard the papal plane.

But his remarks Saturday took a broader aim, as Francis described his philosophies on migrants: how they can be exploited; how they should be encouraged to learn the local language; how migrants can integrate only with the absence of “fear and ignorance.”

“We know that it is not easy — for those who arrive and for those who receive them,” Francis said.

The 27-hour trip is Francis’s latest outreach to the Muslim world, following visits to Egypt in 2017 and the United Arab Emirates last month.

Francis described Morocco as a “natural bridge between Africa and Europe,” and he was greeted at the airport by King Mohammed VI. The two leaders took separate vehicles — the popemobile and a Mercedes limousine — to a never-completed 12th century mosque, where Francis spoke about improving “mutual understanding” between Christians and Muslims.

“It is likewise essential that fanaticism and extremism be countered by solidarity on the part of all believers,” said the pope, who later in the day visited an institute that trains imams and also offers programs for women.

In a joint declaration, Francis and King Mohammed VI made an appeal for another area that has been a hotbed of tensions, calling on Jerusalem to be preserved as a “symbol of peaceful coexistence.”


Pope Francis waves from the popemobile as he leaves Rabat-Salé International Airport. (Fadel Senna/AP)

The comments echoed previous statements from the Vatican, which has long advocated for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestinian territories. But it comes after recent tensions between Jews and Muslims over a holy site in the city.

Francis and the Moroccan king described Jerusalem as a place where “mutual respect and dialogue can be cultivated” among Christians, Muslims and Jews.

“It is our hope, therefore, that in the Holy City, full freedom of access to the followers of the three monotheistic religions and their right to worship will be guaranteed,” the short declaration said.