Speaking within sight of dozens of abandoned vessels used by migrants to reach European shores, Pope Francis begged Christians to examine their "indifference" to the plight of refugees while visiting the Italian island of Lampedusa. Said the pontiff, "We ask forgiveness for the indifference towards so many brothers and sisters," at a Mass he celebrated near the port at Lampedusa, the island near Sicily where tens of thousands of refugees land and are held in camps. In his first trip beyond Rome, Pope Francis said he had come "to reawaken consciences." Just hours before the papal visit, a boat ferrying 160 to Europe landed at Lampedusa.
Speaking forcefully, the pontiff said to a crowd of Italians and African refugees, "We see a brother, on the brink of death, lying in the street and we think 'poor man.' Yet we carry on with our day. We think: 'It's not my responsibility' and we feel justified by this notion. Who has wept for these people who have lost their lives on a boat? For the young mothers who traveled with their children? For those men, who are looking for the means to support their families? We are a society that has forgotten the experience of shedding tears, of suffering amid the globalization of indifference."
"The culture of well-being makes us think about ourselves, renders us insensitive to the cries of others," he said, urging "brotherly responsibility" and condemning a "globalization of indifference."
Pope Francis had been deeply moved by the mid-June drowning death of seven illegal immigrants. While crossing the Mediterranean, the refugees clung to fishing nets after their boat foundered. However, the fishermen who owned the nets cut them and left the refugees their death.
In keeping with his informal and simple style, which emulates one of his namesakes - St Francis of Assisi 'Il Poverello' - the Pope's July 8 visit was notable for its lack of pomp and circumstance. In fact, he used a borrowed Fiat automobile to mobilize on Lampedusa during the visit. In contrast to previous such visits by his predecessors, Pope Francis' visit was announced only last week and did not come after the usual months' worth of planning. No visits to local politicians and dignitaries were planned.
Also on July 8, the Pope recognized Muslim migrants who are beginning their Ramadan period of fasting and prayers. He said the Catholic Church was close to them "in your search for a more dignified life."
The Pope celebrated Mass with a cross, chalice and altar made from the wood of the precarious watercraft that migrants typically arrive in. They embark mainly from Libya and Tunisia and frequently die in the passage. Dozens of abandoned boats were in sight as the pontiff celebrated the Mass.
Before the Mass, Pope Francis cast a wreath of flowers into the sea from an Italian coast guard vessel in tribute to the migrants lost on their way to Europe.
Surrounded by dozens of fishing boats and yachts, the Pope solemnly made the sign of the cross at a spot where one of many drownings occurred. He met with a group of around 50 recent arrivals, many of them young Eritreans, telling them "We will pray for those who are no longer with us." One of the refugees said to the Pope, "We suffered a lot reaching this calm place but now we have to stay in Italy. We would like other European countries to help us."
Under European Union rules, those seeking asylum have to remain in the country of arrival, while unaccompanied minors are often stuck on Lampedusa for months at a time awaiting relocation.
According to AFP News, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, who leads the Vatican's office on migration, said he hoped the visit would prompt "concrete concern and solidarity to improve situations that have become inhuman and unacceptable."
The Pope expressed gratitude to the fishing community of 6,000 living on Lampedusa - an island of just eight square miles — for the assistance and tolerance they had shown to the migrants. The island has witnessed a spike in arrivals recently, due to moderate weather. So far this year, 4000 boat people have arrived, thereby tripling the figure for the same period in 2012. However, the recent numbers are far from the peak experienced in 2011 when tens of thousands of refugees headed towards Europe during the so-called Arab Spring. Since 1999, more than 200,000 people have arrived on the island, one of the biggest gateways for illegal migrants to Europe.
Laura Boldrini, speaker of the Italian parliament and a former U.N. official on refugee issues, averred that maritime rescues "should be improved." Speaking in an interview on Italian public television, Boldini said "Laws need to be clearer that they need to be helped. Rescuing them is a legal and ethical duty." The UN estimates that 40 people have died so far in 2013 in the dangerous crossing from North Africa. In 2012, it was recorded that 500 died or went missing.
Spain is another gateway for the mostly Muslim migrants seeking refuge in Europe. Unstable boats sail from Morocco and nearby countries to seek refuge, often in Spain's Canary Islands. The Spanish Coast Guard has rescued thousands of migrants at sea, while some have managed to reach Spanish shores. The number of Saharan and sub-Saharan Africans living in Spain has greatly increased in the last few years as a result.