Pope Francis chose the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa for his first trip outside of Rome today as he condemned global indifference about the hundreds of migrants who die every year trying to reach Europe by sea.
“The globalization of indifference has stripped us of our ability to cry,” Francis told the crowd gathered to hear mass, referring to people who lost their lives making voyages to Lampedusa. “I felt that I had to come here today to pray, to awaken consciences so that what happened won’t occur again.”
Before the mass, Francis threw a wreath into the waters off the Sicilian island in remembrance of the dead. He then met a small group of migrants, shaking their hands and listening to their stories.
Located between Malta and Tunisia in the Mediterranean Sea, Lampedusa often receives waves of migrants seeking a backdoor entry into Europe. Every summer, when waters are calmer, thousands of Africans brave the dangerous 110 kilometer (70 mile) voyage packed in small boats. Some never make it.
About 7,800 migrants and asylum-seekers landed on the coasts of Italy in the first six months of this year, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. About 40 people died since the start of 2013 attempting to cross the Mediterranean between North Africa and Italy, the UNHCR said.
“Who cried for the deaths of these brothers and sisters?” Francis said today, asking that Lampedusa become a symbol for the world and have “the courage to welcome those that seek a better life.”
Since his appointment last March, Francis has broken with protocol, frequently plunging into crowds to shake hands and dressing in simple white clothing with a silver ring in lieu of the more elaborate dress and gold rings worn by previous popes.
Francis also surprised bystanders today as he offered best wishes for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan to members of the Muslim faith on the island, receiving applause from the crowd.
The gesture marks another break from the past. Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI had a difficult relationship with Muslims after being forced to apologize in 2006 for a speech in which he quoted negative comments about the Islamic faith made by a 14-century Byzantine emperor.
Today, Francis directly attacked society’s lack of compassion for migrants like the ones who wash up every year on Lampedusa’s shores. The pope, whose own ancestors migrated to Argentina from Italy, also denounced smugglers who take advantage of people’s desperation.
He celebrated mass on a sports field and used a wooden chalice carved from the wood of a migrant boat, according to the website of Italian newspaper la Repubblica.