ROME - Pope Francis stopped his open popemobile today as he entered St. Peter's square to bless a large cross built from bits of wooden boats that shipwrecked while carrying migrants near the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy's tiny and most southernmost island, closer to the shores of Africa than mainland Italy, is often the first place migrants land after their difficult sea-crossings.
The large cross was made by Franco Tuccio, a carpenter on the island, who also made one of the crosses Pope Francis used on his moving July 8visit to the rugged island last year.
Pope Francis chose the island for his first trip outside Rome as pontiff to focus attention on the fate of migrants seeking asylum in Europe who often die attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Francis called news reports about these deaths of desperate people trying to reach a better life "a thorn in the heart."
The cross which was blessed today is over 9 feet high, just under 5 feet wide and weighs over 130 pounds. It will now be taken on a "pilgrimage" throughout Italy as a message of solidarity and peace among communities, parishes and faiths and will finally be housed, at the end of its journey, in Saint Stephen's church in Milan.
Tuccio has taken the migrants' cause to heart since April 9,2009 when he abandoned work for the day and helped fellow islanders recover bodies from a shipwrecked boat carrying Somali migrants. A hundred corpses were pulled out of the water that day. Since that day, Tuccio has been making crosses out of the different boat parts he finds on the shores of Lampedusa.
Tens of thousands of migrants arrive in Italy from North Africa every year, and many others die attempting the crossing. Four hundred migrants died in two boat disasters off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013. Following a public outcry, the Italian government set up a rescue operation which, according to Italian Foreign Ministry reports Tuesday, has saved the lives of some 12,000 migrants so far.
The Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said today that Italian vessels rescued over 4,000 African migrants in the waters off Sicily in the past 48 hours. Alfano said that a total of 15,000 migrants have landed on Italy's coasts since the beginning of this year and an estimated 300 to 600 migrants are waiting to depart in boats from Libya.
At the end of the audience the pope renewed his appeal for peace in war-torn Syria and remembered "with deep sorrow" the Jesuit priest who was murdered in the city of Homs on Monday.
"'To Syrian authorities and the international community: weapons must be silenced in Syria, the violence needs to end. No more war. No more destruction," the pope said.
He said the murder of his fellow-Jesuit, who was respected by Christians and Muslims alike in the city, "made me think about all those still suffering and dying in that slaughtered country, my beloved Syria."