Pope Francis flew to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa yesterday to drop a wreath of flowers into the sea to mourn thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who have drowned while sailing from Africa to Europe in search of a better life.
His first papal visit outside the Vatican emphasised his focus on the plight of the poor and climaxed in a fiercely worded homily in front of 10,000 people in which he denounced “the globalisation of indifference” to migrants, adding that their suffering was a “painful thorn in my heart”.
Lying 70 miles from the coast of Tunisia, the tiny Italian island is a popular destination for migrants, who travel there on rickety fishing boats which often run out of fuel or sink in rough weather.
Some 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and the nearby island of Malta in the first half of this year, up from the 4,500 who sailed in the first half of 2012, but down from the many thousands who headed for Lampedusa during the Arab Spring in 2011.
The United Nations has listed 40 deaths at sea in the first half of this year and a total of 500 during 2012. More than 6,000 are believed to have drowned in the waters around Lampedusa between 1994 and 2012. As Pope Francis flew in on Monday to the four-mile-long island, 162 Eritreans arrived in port.
He said: “We have become used to the suffering of others, ‘It doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business’.”
A flotilla of local fishing boats accompanied the Argentine pope as he sailed into the island’s harbour after dropping a wreath of yellow and white flowers from a coast guard vessel. At the Mass, held on a sports field near where the wrecks of migrants’ vessels have been piled up, the Pope used an altar made from a small boat and a lectern made from the helm of one of the vessels, while his staff and chalice were also fashioned from wood taken from the wrecks.
Pope Francis said he decided to visit to the island – a decision which initially took Vatican officials by surprise – after reading about one recent sinking where a dozen migrants were drowned.
“Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families?” he said. “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion.”
The Pope met a group of migrants, and thanked locals for their kind treatment of new arrivals. He also condemned the traffickers who make money packing asylum-seekers on to unseaworthy vessels.
The visit was described by United Nations refugee official Laurent Jolles as a “gesture of huge human and symbolic value,” which, he added, would draw attention to the “45 million people who, around the world, have been forced to leave their homes”.
During his homily, the Pope addressed Muslim migrants, “who this evening begin the fast of Ramadan, which I trust will bear abundant spiritual fruit”. He said: “The Church is at your side as you seek a more dignified life for yourselves and your families.”
The Pope’s visit comes against a backdrop of growing intolerance to migrants in Europe – not least in Italy, which struck a deal in 2009 with Libya’s then ruler, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, to send back migrants intercepted at sea without hearing claims for asylum.
“Lampedusa is the ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ of the third millennium,” Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano told Italy’s parliament this week.
After his visit yesterday, Pope Francis tweeted: “God will judge us on the basis of how we have treated the most needy.”
He has said he wants his to be a missionary church, one that goes to the “peripheries” to minister to the most marginal.
It was appropriate then that he choose Lampedusa as his first pastoral visit. Its residents welcomed him warmly, shouting “Viva il Papa” as he drove by in an open-topped Fiat – not the usual bullet-proof Popemobile – and wildly waving the yellow-and-white flag of the Vatican.