Pope Francis blesses the faithful Saturday after the Liturgy of the Word with the Community of St. Egidio in commemoration of the new martyrs of the 20th and 21st century at San Bartolomeo Basilica in Rome. Photo by Maurizio Brambatti/pool/EPA
April 23 (UPI) -- An American Jewish group has criticized Pope Francis for likening European refugee centers to "concentration camps."
On Saturday, the pontiff was speaking to migrants at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew in Rome about a man he met last year at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Islamic fundamentalists had slit the throat of the man's Christian wife after she refused to throw her crucifix on the ground.
"I don't know if he was able to get out of that concentration camp, because the refugee camps -- many -- are concentration [camps], because they are so crowded with people," the Pope said in Italian.
In a statement later Saturday, the American Jewish Community asked the pope to reconsider his "regrettable" word choice.
"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," said AJC CEO David Harris. "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," Harris added.
Vatican Radio said Francis was speaking off the cuff when he said the refugee camps are like "concentration camps."
The actual term was used in British parliamentary papers during the Boer War at the start of the 1900s to describe internment camps.
On April 11, White House press secretary Sean Spicer referred to concentration camps as "Holocaust centers" while clarifying an earlier claim that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler did not use chemical weapons.
The basilica of St. Bartholomew where the pope spoke is a shrine to Christians killed for their faith in the 20th and 21st centuries.
During his remarks, the pope criticized Europe's refusal to allow new migrants into the continent.
"We live in a civilization that is not having children, but also closes its door to migrants: this is called suicide," the pope said.