Pope Francis has visited Lampedusa in the extreme south of Italy to pay tribute to the thousands of migrants who have lost their lives trying to reach the European Union and criticized what he called the globalization of indifference.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church, who arrived on the tiny island on Monday morning, tossed a wreath into the sea from an Italian coast guard vessel to remember the deceased migrants. Dozens of fishing boats from the island accompanied the coast guard vessel as it pulled into Lampedusa's port.
The pope also met with migrants who have recently arrived on the island after making what is often a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa.
Later, the pontiff celebrated a Mass on the island of just 20 square kilometers, in which he slammed what he described as the globalization of indifference and the culture of wealth that causes people to become insensitive to the plights of others.
We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants, he said via his Twitter account following the Mass. God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.
Lampedusa, which is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, (113 kilometers from Tunisia) has been the point of entry to the European Union for more than 200,000 people since 1999. More than 17,000 would-be migrants have died trying to reach the island during the same time period.
Shortly before the pope arrived, a boat carrying 165 migrants from Mali pulled into port. On Sunday, 120 people including four pregnant women were rescued at sea after the motors in their boat broke down seven miles off the coast.
According to United Nations figures, almost 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers landed on the coasts of southern Italy in the first half of the year, the vast majority of them from North Africa, mainly Libya.
So far, it said 40 people were known to have died crossing from Tunisia to Italy this year, down from 2012 when almost 500 were reported as dead or missing, thanks to better coordination between authorities in Italy and nearby Malta.
As well as a group of migrants, the pope will also meet residents of Lampedusa, who have at various points seen their island transformed into something approaching a refugee centre, with improvised campsites dotting the hills above the port.
On several occasions at the height of the crisis in 2011, the island's normal population of 5,000 was outnumbered by migrants waiting at the portside or in the main reception centre to be transferred to Sicily and mainland Italy.
The plight of refugees is said to be close to Pope Francis’s heart in part due to his background as the son of Italian parents who immigrated to his native Argentina.
The head of the Vatican’s department for migration, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, said he hoped that the pope’s visit would lead to increased concrete concern and solidarity to improve situations that have become inhuman and unacceptable.
This is the pope’s first trip beyond the Rome area since taking office in March.