LAMPEDUSA, Sicily (AP) — Pope Francis traveled Monday to the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa to pray for migrants lost at sea, going to the farthest reaches of Italy to throw a wreath of flowers into the sea as yet another boatload of Eritrean migrants came ashore.
Lampedusa, a treeless, strip of an island nine kilometers (four miles) long, is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and is the main port of entry into Europe for African migrants smuggled by boat from Libya or Tunisia.
As his plane was landing, a boat carrying 162 Eritreans arrived in port. Officials said they were in good condition, just cold.
Dozens of Lampedusan fishing boats accompanied Francis' coast guard ship as it pulled into port, a seaborne motorcade to honor the first pope to visit an island that often complains it has been forgotten by Europe as it deals with the thousands of would-be immigrants who come ashore each year.
"Pope Francis, only you can save us," read a banner on one of the boats. "You're one of us," said a spray-painted sign hanging from an apartment building overlooking the port.
Francis, whose grandparents immigrated to Argentina from Italy, has a special place in his heart for refugees: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he denounced the exploitation of migrants as "slavery" and said those who did nothing to help them were complicit by their silence.
He has also said he wants his to be a missionary church that goes to the "peripheries" to minister to the most marginal.
Francis greeted a few dozen migrants one by one as he arrived in port, stopping to chat with a few before heading to celebrate Mass on the island's main sports field.