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story.lead_photo.caption Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Knyaz Alexandar Square, in Sofia, Sunday, May 5, 2019. Pope Francis is visiting Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest country and one that has taken a hard line against migrants, a stance that conflicts with the pontiff's view that reaching out to vulnerable people is a moral imperative. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Pope Francis on Sunday urged Bulgarians to open their hearts and homes to migrants, arguing that the country should understand the forces that drive people to seek better lives elsewhere.

Bulgaria is losing people faster than any other country, according to the United Nations. The country, which is about the size of Tennessee, has about 7 million people, but that is projected to dwindle to 5.4 million by 2050 and to 3.9 million by the end of the century. Bulgaria has the EU's highest mortality rate and one of the bloc's lowest birth rates, and tens of thousands of workers leave the country each year to search for jobs.

As Francis arrived in the Balkan nation for a two-day visit, he "respectfully suggested" that Bulgarians recognize that migrants are fleeing war, conflict or dire poverty "to find new opportunities in life or simply a safe refuge."

"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 told government officials at the presidential palace in Sofia, the capital.

Bulgaria's center-right, pro-Brussels coalition government includes three nationalist, anti-migrant parties. The government has called for the European Union to close its borders to migrants and has sealed off its own frontier with Turkey with a barbed-wire fence.

Francis has made the plight of migrants and refugees a hallmark of his papacy, urging governments to build bridges, not walls, and to do what they can to welcome and integrate refugees.

Today, Francis will visit a refugee center in a former school on the outskirts of Sofia. Human-rights groups have criticized Bulgaria, and the EU's executive commission has formally cited the government over its treatment of asylum seekers, especially unaccompanied minors. The Vrazhdebna center that the pope plans to visit, the flagship migrant welcome center in Bulgaria, was renovated with EU funds.

Radostina Belcheva of the Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria said Francis' visit will show his solidarity with those in need.

"But really, their whole acceptance is a matter for each of us and for our society," Belcheva said.

In his speech Sunday, Francis urged Bulgaria to work to reverse this "new demographic winter," saying the shrinking population phenomenon had "descended like a curtain of ice on a large part of Europe, the consequence of a diminished confidence in the future."

He urged Bulgaria to "strive to create conditions that lead young people to invest their youthful energies and plan their future, as individuals and families, knowing that in their homeland they can have the possibility of leading a dignified life."

Francis later met with the leader of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neofit, during a visit to the headquarters of the Holy Synod, the church's governing body. Francis kissed Neofit three times on the cheek and, in a gesture of respect, leaned over to kiss his medallion featuring an image of Christ.

The conservative Bulgarian church doesn't participate in official Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and even snubbed a pan-Orthodox council in Crete in 2016. The Holy Synod has made clear that it will not take part in any joint services or prayers with the pope, though a children's choir is expected to sing for him.

Francis sought to encourage greater paths of dialogue in his remarks to Neofit, a reflection of the Vatican's long-standing efforts to heal the 1,000-year schism that split Christianity. Francis lamented the "wounds" of division and "fraternal nostalgia" of being unified.

But Neofit held firm in his speech, saying that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church would remain the keepers of true Christianity.

"We are firmly convinced that for all that concerns the faith, there cannot and must not be any compromises," he told Francis.

Information for this article was contributed by Valentina Petrova of The Associated Press.

A Section on 05/06/2019

Print Headline: Embrace migrants, pope urges Bulgarians

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