Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, will visit the Greek island of Lesbos next week to highlight the plight of refugees, the Greek government said.

The visit will come as refugees and other migrants are being deported back to Turkey under the European Union's controversial move to ease Europe's migrant problem.

Pope Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, has been outspoken about Europe's moral obligation to welcome refugees and his visit to Greece will likely embarrass EU leaders already under fire from human rights groups over the deportations.

The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, the decision-making body of the Greek church, said Francis had asked to go to highlight the plight of refugees. It said the request had been accepted, and the island of Lesbos suggested, adding it had also extended an invitation to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, to visit the island on the same day.

The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate confirmed Bartholomew would visit the island.

Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi said today that no decision had been made, but said "I don't deny that there are contacts about a possible trip".

The Greek government issued a note saying the pope and patriarch would be visiting Lesbos on April 14-15 along with Athens' Archbishop Ieronymos, and that prime minister Alexis Tsipras would join them.

Pope Francis has made the plight of migrants a priority of his three-year pontificate, insisting in particular that Europe and other countries open their doors and hearts to people fleeing persecution and poverty.

He told the Vatican's diplomatic corps in January that Europe had the means to welcome refugees without compromising its security or culture and that the continent bore the "moral responsibility" to care for others who have fled their homes to seek a better life.

Europe's deal with Turkey has come under fierce criticism from human rights groups and aid organisations, who accuse European countries of ignoring their commitments to protect vulnerable refugees.

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