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In Greece, Democracy’s Birthplace, Pope Warns of Populist Threats

December 4, 2021

ATHENS — Pope Francis warned Saturday that the “easy answers” of populism and authoritarianism threaten democracy in Europe and called for fresh dedication to promoting the common good.

Francis used a speech to political and cultural leaders in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, to address Europe at large, arguing that only robust multilateralism can successfully address the pressing issues of the day, from protecting the environment to the pandemic and poverty.

“Politics needs this, in order to put common needs ahead of private interests,” Francis said after arriving in Athens on Saturday. “Yet we cannot avoid noting with concern how today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy.”

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

He did not name any specific countries or leaders during his speech. The EU, however, is locked in a feud with members Poland and Hungary over rule-of-law issues, with Warsaw insisting that Polish law takes precedence over EU policies and regulations.

Pope Francis is greeted by Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou as he arrives at the Presidential Palace, in Athens, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. Pope Francis arrived to Greece Saturday for the second leg of his trip to the region with meetings in Athens aimed at bolstering recently-mended ties between the Vatican and Orthodox churches. (George Vitsaras/Pool Photo via AP)

Outside the bloc, populist leaders in Brazil and the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump pressed nationalist policies on the environment that contrasted sharply with Francis’ call to care for “our common home.”

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

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

That dream is at risk amid the economic upheaval and other disruptions of the pandemic that can breed nationalist sentiments and make authoritarianism seem “compelling and populism’s easy answers appear attractive,” Francis said.

“The remedy is not to be found in an obsessive quest for popularity, in a thirst for visibility, in a flurry of unrealisitic promises…but in good politics,” he said.

Francis’ visit to Cyprus and Greece also has focused on the plight of migrants as Europe hardens its border control policies. He is scheduled to travel Sunday to the Aegean Sea island of Lesbos, where he visited five years ago to meet with migrants at a detention camp.

Pope Francis is welcomed by Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou as he prepares to deliver his speech during a meeting with authorities, at the Presidential Palace, in Athens, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. Pope Francis arrived to Greece Saturday for the second leg of his trip to the region with meetings in Athens aimed at bolstering recently-mended ties between the Vatican and Orthodox churches. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

In Athens, Francis is also meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the leader of Greece’s Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II became the first Catholic leader to visit Greece in more than 1,200 years and Francis’ visit 20 years later is expected to further Catholic-Orthodox ties, still wounded by the Great Schism that divided Christianity.

Francis has accelerated inter-faith initiatives, as the two churches attempt to shift from centuries of competition and mistrust toward collaboration.

Francis invited Orthodox Christian and other religious leaders to the Vatican in October to sign a climate declaration. Supporters of greater Vatican-Orthodox cooperation argue that it could assist beleaguered Christian communities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Orthodox churches are also seeking alliances amid a deepening dispute over the independence of the Ukrainian church, which was historically governed by the Russian Orthodox Church.

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

“So this trip is very significant, and it means we can have a real discussion about the major issues, like migration,” Panagiotopoulos said.

Up to 4,000 police officers were readied for duty in Athens for the pope’s visit, and authorities banned protests and large public gatherings in parts of central Athens over the weekend.

The pope’s visit ends Monday.

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By NICOLE WINFIELD and DEREK GATOPOULOS Associated Press

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