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(CBS) — Pope Francis held mass in the port of Lampedusa on Monday and called upon everyone to remember the thousands of migrants from Africa who have died trying to reach the tiny Sicilian island in unsafe and overcrowded boats.
The choice of Lampedusa for his first official trip outside Rome is highly symbolic for the new pontiff, who has placed the poor and dispossessed at the center of his papacy and has urged the Church to return to its mission of serving them.
His trip comes at the start summer when the island, one of the main points of entry into Europe and just 70 miles from Tunisia, is used to seeing a steady flow of flimsy and unsafe migrant boats arriving on its shores.
Thousands of islanders waving caps and banners welcomed Francis at the port.
Speaking of his reaction to hearing news about the recent deaths of migrants whilst trying to make the crossing to Italy, Pope Francis said:
"When a few weeks ago I heard this news which has repeated itself so many times, my thoughts kept returning to me, like a thorn in my heart bringing me pain. I thought then I needed to come here today to pray. To carry out a gesture of closeness and to re-awaken our consciousness, so this never happens again, never again please."
The mass took place in a sports field which has been used as a reception center for tens of thousands who fled Arab Spring unrest in North Africa in 2011. The altar was built on a fishing boat and the wooden chalice used in the ceremony, carved from the wood of a migrant vessel by a local carpenter.
"I would like to send my thoughts to our dear Muslim immigrants who this evening will begin their fast of Ramadan" Pope Francis said.
"I wish for you, great spiritual fruits, the church is close to you in your search of a life that is more dignified for you and your families" he said.
Using a local friendly greeting that islanders use to greet each other the pope then said:
"To you "O'Scia'."
Lampedusa, a sleepy island which normally lives off fishing and tourism, has become one of the main points of entry into Europe for poor and desperate migrants willing to risk the crossing in overcrowded and unsafe fishing vessels and small boats.
Thousands are known to have died over the past two decades and unknown numbers of others are presumed lost without trace.
According to United Nations figures, almost 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers landed on the coasts of southern Italy in the first half of the year, the vast majority of them from North Africa, mainly Libya.
So far, it said 40 people were known to have died crossing from Tunisia to Italy this year, down from 2012 when almost 500 were reported as dead or missing, thanks to better co-ordination between authorities in Italy and nearby Malta.
As well as a group of migrants, the pope will also meet residents of Lampedusa, who have at various points seen their island transformed into something approaching a refugee center, with improvised campsites dotting the hills above the port.
On several occasions at the height of the crisis in 2011, the island's normal population of 5,000 was outnumbered by migrants waiting at the portside or in the main reception center to be transferred to Sicily and mainland Italy.
Reminders of the crisis are everywhere on the island, notably in the portside scrapyard of old fishing boats, normally chosen by migrant smugglers in the knowledge that they would have only one voyage to make.
Despite some isolated outbreaks of tension and frustration, directed as much at the inactivity of Italian authorities as the migrants themselves, relations have mostly been good, with islanders often offering food and other assistance themselves.
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