VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis said on Monday that “no one is exempt” from helping migrants, in an indirect rebuke of Italy’s hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini who has tried to shut the country’s ports to non-governmental migrant rescue ships.
Francis celebrated a closed-door Mass especially for migrants in St. Peter’s Basilica on the sixth anniversary of his trip to Lampedusa, the southern island where tens of thousands of migrants from north Africa have arrived in recent years. Thousands have died at sea trying to make it there.
“These least ones (among us) are abandoned and cheated into dying in the desert; these least ones are tortured, abused and violated in detention camps; these least ones face the waves of an unforgiving sea; these least ones are left in reception camps too long for them to be called temporary,” said Francis.
The Mass was broadcast on television but journalists and the general public were not allowed to attend in order to preserve the intimacy of the occasion. It was attended by some 250 people, including migrants, volunteers and representatives of Church groups and other organizations that help migrants.
Women in traditional African dresses held their babies.
Italy last month adopted new rules threatening NGO ships entering territorial waters without permission with large fines and the impounding of vessels. One captain was arrested.
The migration policy has led to clashes between NGOs and the authorities. Italy’s coalition government, which includes Salvini’s right-wing League, has also accused other European countries of leaving it alone to deal with sea arrivals.
More migrants came ashore on Sunday from a rescue boat that had breached for the second time in a week Salvini’s ban.
“The weakest and most vulnerable must be helped,” the pope said in his homily on Monday.
“This is a tremendous responsibility, from which no one is exempt if we wish to fulfill the mission of salvation and liberation, in which the Lord himself has called us to cooperate.”
In what appeared to be a reference to the recent stand-off between the Italian government and the charity ships, a prayer read by one of the participants said: “Lord Jesus, bless the rescuers in the Mediterranean Sea, and make grow in each of us the courage of truth and respect for every human life.”
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones