Pope Francis has urged governments to free migrants and refugees from holding centers in European countries, which he compared with "concentration camps." The American Jewish Committee objected to that comparison.
Departing from his prepared text while speaking on Saturday at Rome's Basilica of St. Bartholomew, a shrine to Christians killed for their faith in the 20th and 21st centuries, the pope recalled his trip to a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos last year.
While honoring Christians killed under Nazism, Communism, dictatorships and terrorism, the pope said that last year he met a Muslim refugee from the Middle East at the shrine. The refugee narrated how Islamists slit the throat of his Christian wife after she refused to throw her crucifix on the ground.
"I don't know if he managed to leave that concentration camp, because refugee camps, many of them, are of concentration (type) because of the great number of people left there inside them," Francis said, according to Reuters.
The pontiff added that he would like to add to the martyrs remembered there by including the Christian woman.
"I don't know her name, but she watches from Heaven. … Now it's that man, a Muslim, who carries this cross of pain," the pope said, according to Catholic News Service.
"So many Christian communities are the object of persecution today! Why? Because of the hatred of the spirit of this world," the pope said, adding that Jesus has "rescued us from the power of this world, from the power of the devil."
"What does the Church need today?" the pope continued. "Martyrs and witnesses, those everyday saints, those saints of an ordinary life lived with coherence. But it also needs those who have the courage to accept the grace of being witnesses to the end, to the point of death. All of those are the living blood of the Church," those who "witness that Jesus is risen, that Jesus lives."
However, the AJC later requested Francis "to reconsider his regrettable choice of words" for using the term concentration camp.
"The conditions in which migrants are currently living in some European countries may well be difficult, and deserve still greater international attention, but concentration camps they certainly are not," the AJC's head, David Harris, said in a statement. "The Nazis and their allies erected and used concentration camps for slave labor and the extermination of millions of people during World War II. There is no comparison to the magnitude of that tragedy."
Last month, The Guardian reported that a mass rape epidemic was taking place inside the Dunkirk refugee camp in Northern France, targeting women and children, with the former choosing to wear adult diapers over going to the toilet at night.
Dunkirk, which holds up to 2,000 refugees, including an estimated 100 unaccompanied minors, is a site of "inadequate security and atrocious living conditions," the Dunkirk Legal Support Team was quoted as explaining.
"Sexual assault, violence and rape are all far too common. Minors are assaulted and women are raped and forced to pay for smuggling with their bodies," a volunteer coordinator was quoted as saying.
Last year, persecution watchdog group Open Doors found that at least 743 Christian refugees living in camps in Germany were attacked by Muslim refugees, pointing to big failures on the part of German authorities in understanding the role of religion in the lives of refugees.
"The documented cases confirm that the situation of Christian refugees in German refugee shelters is still unbearable. As a minority they are discriminated against, beaten up by and receive death threats from Muslim refugees and partly by the Muslim staff (securities, interpreters, volunteers) on grounds of their religion," a major survey published by Open Doors Germany said in October 2016. "Taking these new cases into consideration there are now 743 Christian refugees who have reported religiously motivated attacks. With more staff at hand, a significantly higher number of cases could have been included in the survey."