By Tom Kington
1:06 PM EDT, July 8, 2013
ROME -- Against a backdrop of growing anti-immigration sentiment in Europe, Pope Francis on Monday used his first papal trip outside the Vatican to denounce the "globalization of indifference" to migrants, calling their suffering "a painful thorn in my heart."
The pontiff traveled to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa to drop a wreath of flowers into the Mediterranean in mourning for the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who have drowned while sailing from Africa to Europe in search of a better life.
"We have become used to the suffering of others," said Francis, who made the surprise decision to visit Lampedusa after reading about the recent sinking of a boat that resulted in the deaths of a dozen migrants.
"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 asked. "We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion."
Addressing Muslims on the island, the pope said that "the church is with you in the search for a more dignified life for you and your families."
Francis' fiercely worded homily, delivered before a crowd of 10,000 people, highlighted his focus on the plight of the poor and marginalized.
Just 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia, Lampedusa is a favored landing point in Europe for African migrants, who travel on rickety fishing boats that often run out of fuel or sink in rough weather. About 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and the nearby island of Malta in the first half of this year, up from 4,500 in the same period last year, but down from the many thousands who headed for Lampedusa during the political upheaval of the Arab Spring in 2011.
More than 6,000 people are believed to have drowned in the waters around Lampedusa between 1994 and 2012. The United Nations recorded 500 deaths of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean during 2012.
Hostility toward immigrants is on the rise in Europe as the region contends with a stubborn economic recession. Countries such as Britain are trying to tighten restrictions on newcomers; anti-immigrant political parties, some on the far right, have become potent forces in France, Greece, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. In 2009, Italy struck a deal with Libya's then-ruler, Moammar Kadafi, to send back migrants intercepted at sea without hearing claims for asylum.
Pope Francis, whose own forebears migrated from Italy to Argentina, was accompanied by a flotilla of local fishing boats as he sailed into Lampedusa's harbor after dropping a wreath of yellow and white flowers from an Italian coast guard vessel.
The pope celebrated Mass on a sports field near where the wrecks of migrants' vessels have been piled up. He used an altar fashioned from a small boat and a lectern made from the helm of one of the vessels. His staff and chalice were also made from piece of wood taken from the wrecks.
The pope met a group of migrants and thanked locals for their kind treatment of new arrivals.
After his visit, he tweeted: "God will judge us on the basis of how we have treated the most needy."
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