ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Pope Francis warned on Saturday that the “easy answers” of populism and authoritarianism threatened democracy in Europe and called for a new dedication to promote the common good rather than narrow nationalist interests.

Arriving in Greece, the cradle of democracy, Francis used a speech to Greek political and cultural leaders to warn Europe as a whole of the threats facing the continent. He said that only strong multilateralism can solve the pressing problems of the day, from protecting the environment to combating the pandemic and poverty.

“Politics needs this, in order to put common needs ahead of private interests,” Francis said. “Yet we cannot avoid seeing with concern how today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a decline in democracy.”

Francis, who lived through Argentina’s populist Peronist era as well as its military dictatorship, has often warned of the threat of authoritarianism and populism and the danger it poses to the European Union and to democracy itself. same.

He did not name any particular country or leader during his speech. The EU, however, is locked in a row with its members, Poland and Hungary, over rule of law issues, with Warsaw insisting that Polish law takes precedence over EU policies and regulations. .

Coincidentally, on the same day Francis warned of the populist threat to Europe, right-wing populist leaders met in Warsaw and said they would work more closely together to defend their sovereignty in the European Parliament.

Outside the bloc, populist leaders in Brazil and the administration of former US President Donald Trump lobbied nationalist environmental policies that contrasted sharply with Francis’ call to take care of “our common home.” “.

Opening the second leg of his five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece, François recalled that it was in Greece, according to Aristotle, that man became aware of being a “political animal” and a member of a community. of fellow citizens.

“Here, democracy was born,” François told Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou. “This cradle, thousands of years later, was to become a house, a great house of democratic peoples. I am talking about the European Union and the dream of peace and fraternity that it represents for so many peoples.

This dream is threatened amid economic upheavals and other disruptions from the pandemic that can breed nationalistic sentiments and make authoritarianism appear “compelling and populism’s easy responses seem appealing,” Francis said.

“The cure does not lie in an obsessive quest for popularity, in a thirst for visibility, in a flurry of unrealistic promises… but in good policy,” he said.

François praised the “necessary vaccination campaign” promoted by governments to tame the coronavirus. He referred to another Greek physician-philosopher – Hippocrates – in response to vaccine skeptics and virus deniers, who have many religious conservatives among them. Francis quoted the Hippocratic Oath to not only do what is best for the sick, but to “refrain from anything that is harmful and offensive to others,” especially the elderly.

The Greek president echoed this sentiment. “The virus spreads and mutates, aided by the irrational denial of reality and the inequalities in our societies,” said Sakellaropoulou.

Greece is grappling with its highest level of coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic, with deaths approaching record levels. A quarter of the country’s adults remain unvaccinated, and parliament recently approved a mandate to vaccinate people over 60.

Francis’ journey was clouded by the death on December 2 of the Vatican’s Ambassador to the European Union Archbishop Aldo Giordano among several prelates who tested positive for COVID-19 after celebrating the final Mass of François in Slovakia in September. The Vatican embassy to the EU insisted Giordano had contracted the virus days earlier during a meeting of European bishops in Hungary.

Francis’ visit to Cyprus and Greece also focused on the plight of migrants as Europe tightens its border control policies. On Sunday, he returns to the island of Lesvos in the Aegean Sea, which he visited five years ago to meet migrants in a detention camp.

In Athens, Francis also meets Archbishop Ieronymos, head of the Greek Orthodox Church.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II became the first Catholic leader to visit Greece in over 1,200 years and he took the opportunity to implore forgiveness of sins “by action or omission” of Catholics against the Orthodox. over the centuries. Francis’ visit 20 years later sought to further mend Catholic-Orthodox ties, still wounded by the Great Schism that divided Christianity.

Ieronymos told Francis on Saturday that he shared the Pope’s vision of forging strong bonds to deal with global challenges such as the migration crisis and climate change.

“If the global community, leaders of powerful states and international organizations do not take bold decisions, the ever-threatening presence of vulnerable refugee women and children will continue to grow globally,” Ieronymos warned.

An elderly Orthodox priest heckled Francis as he arrived at Ieronymos’ residence, shouting, “Pope, you are a heretic! before the police push him away.

Francis has accelerated interfaith initiatives as the two churches attempt to move from centuries of competition and mistrust to collaboration. Orthodox churches are also seeking alliances amid growing conflict over the independence of the Ukrainian church, which was historically ruled by the Russian Orthodox Church.

“I think the presence of the Pope in Greece and Cyprus signals a return to the normal relationship we should have … so that we can move forward towards what is most important of all: the unity of the Christian world”, Ioannis Panagiotopoulos , an associate professor of theology and church history at the University of Athens, told The Associated Press.

The Pope’s visit ends Monday.

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