A Syrian refugee mother puts her baby to stroller in Nizip refugee camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, on Nov. 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Umit Bektas

Christmas reminds us that Jesus was a migrant like today’s refugees, says Pope Francis

VATICAN CITY (RNS) As Pope Francis officially opened this year’s Christmas Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, he said Jesus was a “migrant” who reminds us of the plight of today's refugees.

Francis told donors who contributed both the Nativity set and an 82-foot tree that the story of Jesus' birth echoes the “tragic reality of migrants on boats making their way toward Italy" from the Middle East and Africa today.

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“The sad experience of these brothers and sisters recalls that of baby Jesus, who at the time of his birth could not find a place to stay when he was born in Bethlehem,” the pope said during a brief address in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall. “He was then taken to Egypt to escape threats from Herod.”

This year’s Christmas tree is an evergreen from northern Italy. The Nativity scene was donated by the government of the Mediterranean island nation of Malta and that country's Catholic bishops.

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It was produced by Maltese artist Manwel Grech and features 17 figures dressed in traditional Maltese costumes as well as a replica of a typical Maltese boat.

The pope invited those who visit this Nativity scene to rediscover its “symbolic value," which he called “a message of fraternity, of sharing, of welcome and solidarity.”

A migrant mother with child disembarks from a MSF, Medecins Sans Frontieres, vessel in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, on Nov. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Antonio Parrinello

A migrant mother with child disembarks from an MSF, Medecins Sans Frontieres, vessel in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, on Nov. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Antonio Parrinello

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Francis also thanked the children who decorated the tree with the support of a foundation that organizes ceramic therapy workshops in Italian hospitals for children undergoing treatment for cancer and other illnesses.

The pontiff told them that “the multicolored ornaments you have created represent the values of life, love and peace that Christ's Christmas proposes to us anew each year.”

The pope has spoken out in support of refugees many times and said there were many stories of migration in the Bible.

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“Today the current economic crisis unfortunately fosters attitudes of closure instead of welcome,” he said during a weekly audience at the Vatican in October.

“In some parts of the world walls and barriers are being built. It appears that the silent work of men and women who, in different ways, do what they can to help and assist refugees and migrants is being drowned out by the noise made by those who give voice to an instinctive egoism,” he said.

(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)