Pope asks Bulgarians to ‘open hearts’ to migrants


SOFIA: Pope Francis urged Bulgarians to open their hearts and doors to refugees as he began a visit to the European Union’s poorest country, where the main Orthodox Church snubbed holding joint prayers with the pontiff.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov met Francis at the airport, welcoming him with a large pot of kiselo mlyako, a mildly sour-tasting local yoghurt, saying: “This is your grandmother’s yoghurt.”

“The first time I heard the word yoghurt was from my grandmother,” the pope replied.

The Bulgarian emissary to the Vatican Kiril Topalev had earlier quoted the pope as telling him: “I grew up with Bulgarian yoghurt. When I was two years old, my grandmother gave me Bulgarian yoghurt.”

Pope Francis’s three-day tour, which also takes in North Macedonia, includes a visit to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Sofia and a commemoration of Mother Teresa, the most famous native of the Macedonian capital Skopje.

The Pope evoked a “new winter” plaguing Bulgaria and other European nations who face an exodus of their people as well as falling birth rates, in his first address to Bulgarian officials.

The population has fallen to seven million against nine million in 1989, the year communism ended in Bulgaria, and is projected to plunge to 5.4 million in 2050.

“Bulgaria faces the effects of the emigration in recent decades of over two million of her citizens in search of new opportunities for employment,” he said, adding that this had “led to the depopulation and abandonment of many villages and cities”.

He also touched on the plight of migrants and refugees flocking to the country.

“Bulgaria confronts the phenomenon of those seeking to cross its borders in order to flee wars, conflicts or dire poverty, in the attempt to reach the wealthiest areas of Europe, there to find new opportunities in life or simply a safe refuge,” the pope said.

“To all Bulgarians, who are familiar with the drama of emigration, I respectfully suggest that you not close your eyes, your hearts or your hands — in accordance with your best tradition -– to those who knock at your door,” he said.

Francis, whose papacy has been marred by a wave of child sex abuse allegations against clergy, has made improving interfaith dialogue a priority.

But last month the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod rejected the idea of Orthodox priests participating in a joint “prayer for peace” with the pope in a Sofia square planned for Monday.

The Orthodox Church is instead sending a children’s choir to the downgraded meeting which will be attended by at least one of the capital’s Muslim leaders, a Vatican source said.