VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The migrant crisis engulfing Europe poses a big challenge to Europe’s values and traditions but the continent should be able to integrate the newcomers without undermining the safety of its citizens, Pope Francis said on Monday.
More than one million people sought refuge in Europe last year, many of them fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq. A majority of the migrants are Muslims and Europeans are worried about how to integrate them, especially since the Nov. 13 attacks by Islamist militants in Paris that killed 130 people.
“The present wave of migration seems to be undermining the foundations of that humanistic spirit which Europe has always loved and defended,” the pope said in an annual address to diplomats at the Vatican City, adding that he hoped countries would prove capable of welcoming the refugees.
“Europe, aided by its great cultural and religious heritage, has the means to defend the centrality of the human person and to find the right balance between its two-fold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to ensure assistance and acceptance to migrants,” he said.
The question of integration has dominated news headlines in the first two weeks of 2016 after assaults on women who had been celebrating New Year’s Eve in the German city of Cologne.
A police investigation has focused on asylum seekers and migrants and the assaults have prompted an anxious debate in Germany, which in 2015 took in around one million migrants.
The pope last year led calls for Europe to take in the migrants. Looking to set an example, he called on all Roman Catholic parishes to house at least one refugee family, but his appeal has drawn a mixed response.
While praising Europe as a “beacon of humanity”, the pope said the West was suffering from a “vacuum of ideals and the loss of identity”, which he said provided fertile territory for the spread of extremism and religious fundamentalism.
“This vacuum gives rise to the fear which leads to seeing the other as a threat and an enemy,” he said.
The European Union has struggled to cope with the tide of refugees, most of whom have arrived by sea in Greece and Italy before trying to reach wealthier northern EU states.
Some countries have re-established border controls, while efforts to share out the asylum-seekers have floundered.
“It is important that nations in the forefront of meeting the present emergency not be left alone,” Pope Francis said, urging greater solidarity among European countries.
Successful integration of the newcomers will bring social, economic and cultural benefits to the host nations, he added.
Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Gareth Jones