Pope Francis tossed a wreath of yellow and white flowers into the waters off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa on Monday during the pontiff's first official trip outside of Rome since his coronation in March.
The wreath was a tribute to the hundreds of migrants who die each year trying to reach the shores of the island, an Italian territory closer to Tunisia than to its own mainland. Lampedusa has long been a transit point for African and Middle Eastern people seeking an escape to Europe, and recent upheavals in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia have only worsened the chronic overcrowding that plagues Lampedusa's immigration centers.
BBC reported that just hours before the Pope's arrival, 166 Africans, reportedly from Eritrea, arrived at Lampedusa. Over the first six months of this year, some 8,400 migrants came to the island, according to the UN refugee agency, nearly double the figure for the same period in 2012.
Of the tens of thousands of North African immigrants who crowd into small boats to make the perilous journey to Lampedusa, those who don't perish often deal with crooked smugglers or harrowing conditions on the crowded island. During his mass service, Pope Francis called on the international community to exercise empathy when dealing with foreign migrants, in Lampedusa and all around the world.
“The globalization of indifference has stripped us of our ability to cry,” he said. “I felt that I had to come here today to pray, to awaken consciences so that what happened won’t occur again.” The Pope's statements don't constitute a break with tradition for the Catholic Church. Though the institution's views on a host of social issues including abortion and gay rights are staunchly conservative, it has generally been a proponent of free immigration between states, with the understanding that a nation's responsibility to protect its residents shouldn't be contingent upon whether those residents have their papers in order.
In the throes of a financial crisis and high unemployment rates, several European countries have seen an upsurge in anti-immigrant sentiments. But Pope Francis argues that it is the responsibility of sovereign nations and their citizens to protect those who come to their shores seeking better lives. "These, our brothers and sisters, seek to leave difficult situations in order to find a little serenity and peace, they seek a better place for themselves and for their families – but they found death," he said during his visit. "How many times to those who seek this not find understanding, do not find welcome, do not find solidarity?"