Pope Francis blasts 'haggard' Europe
Pope Francis launched a withering attack Tuesday on a "haggard" Europe, urging it to reclaim global leadership after years of crisis and to take in migrants before the Mediterranean becomes a "vast cemetery".
The Argentine pontiff addressed the European Parliament and Council of Europe during a lightning visit to Strasbourg, during which he called for urgent economic and social change.
Francis, the first non-European pope for more than a millennium, took a harsher tone than the last pontiff to visit the French city, John Paul II, in 1988 at the end of the Cold War.
"Europe seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist," the 77-year-old pope told the European parliament.
"We encounter a general impression of weariness and ageing, of a Europe which is now a 'grandmother', no longer fertile and vibrant."
Francis -- whose four-hour trip was the shortest abroad by any pope -- was critical of the growing nationalist and anti-immigration sentiment that has surged in Europe amid economic stagnation and unemployment.
Yet he also seemed to echo some of the complaints by eurosceptic parties that won big in the European Parliament elections in May, when he criticised the EU for failing its citizens and being non-democratic.
"The great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions," he said.
- 'Vast cemetery' -
However the pope reserved his strongest language to call for a "united response" to the plight of migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa, more than 3,200 of whom have died trying to reach Europe this year alone.
"We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery," said the pope, who made a similar appeal during a visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013 after a major shipwreck.
"The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance."
Bells rang out from churches across Strasbourg to mark his visit, including the historic cathedral, where hundreds watched his speech on giant screens.
"The pope comes with a message of peace. He's come to speak to parliamentarians to build a united Europe where there will be respect for everyone," said Melanie Makougang, who was visiting from Cameroon.
But the crowd-loving Francis unusually left his popemobile behind for his trip and dedicated his time to addressing the two European institutions.
The European Parliament divides its time between Brussels and Strasbourg, while the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe was set up after World War II to promote human rights and democracy.
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics received long standing ovations after his speeches, which followed a flag-raising ceremony and meetings with new European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and outgoing European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who welcomed Francis to the huge glass and steel building, said his visit was important at a time of "tremendous loss of confidence in the European institutions".
- Tight security -
Security was tight with snipers posted atop buildings and army sniffer dogs sent out to check the area before the pope's arrival by plane from the Vatican, AFP journalists said.
Francis's visit was relatively uneventful compared to 26 years ago when John Paul II was heckled as the "anti-Christ" by the late Northern Ireland Protestant unionist leader Ian Paisley.
But the current pope was not afraid to take on big issues. In his address to the Council of Europe, Francis appeared to allude to the crisis in Ukraine, calling for a "political solution" to end "tensions" in Europe.
"How great a toll of suffering and death is still being exacted on this continent," he said.
Francis also condemned "religious and international terrorism" in Europe and elsewhere.
The pope also spoke out on hot-button topics such as abortion and euthanasia -- particularly after a slew of recent legislative changes in European countries.
His visit had sparked protests in some quarters -- including from a bare-breasted Femen rights group demonstrator who mounted the cathedral altar on Monday -- with critics angry over the decision to invite a religious leader to address a secular body.
© 2014 AFP