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Pope Francis offers prayers for victims of Lampedusa boat sinking

A beach of the SIcilian island off Lampedusa (PA)

Pope Francis has offered prayers after a boat carrying African migrants sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa this morning.

The boat carrying around 500 migrants, thought to be mainly from Eritrea and Somalia, reportedly caught fire with the estimated number of victims so far reaching 94. According to reports, the victims included a pregnant woman and two children, a boy and a girl, under the age of three. Around 150 survivors have been rescued, but more than 250 people are said to still be missing.

Pope Francis tweeted: “We pray to God for the victims of the tragic shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa.”

Later the Pope addressed a conference marking the 50th anniversary of Blessed John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). He tied the migrants’ tragedy to the “inhuman global economic crisis, a serious symptom of a lack of respect for the human person”. Calling the Lampedusa tragedy “shameful”, he asked everyone to renew efforts “to ensure that such tragedies are not repeated”.

Pope Francis visited Lampedusa, his first trip as Pontiff outside Rome, in July. The small Italian island and its Astalli refugee centre is the first port of call for scores of migrants arriving in Italy from all over the world.

Monsignor Francesco Montenegro, archbishop of Agrigento and president of the CEI for Migration, said: “This is news that gives rise to feelings of sadness and outrage because we cannot continue to count the dead as if we were simply witnesses. The stories of people who make the trip, as the Pope said when he visited Lampedusa, are stories that are intertwined with ours.”

Fr Giovanni La Manna SJ, director of the Astalli centre, said: “It is unacceptable and shameful that in 2013 the arrival of a ramshackle boat carrying 500 people in the Mediterranean Sea can be met with indifference. Expressing formal mourning for the dead is not enough to remove blame and responsibility. We must welcome them alive, otherwise we are as guilty as those who organise the smuggling of human beings.”

At around 7.20am local time, two distress signals were received by the harbour master from two fishing boats, the coast guard reports. Both referred to migrants drowning about half a mile off the coast off Lampedusa’s Rabbit Beach.

James Stapleton, the International Communications Coordinator at Jesuit Refugee Service, told Vatican Radio that “the reason people continue to take these risks is because Europe has increasingly made it more difficult” for them to come to the continent.

“What we are doing is that we are forcing people to take increasingly dangerous routes, and what we need to do is to intervene and to put human lives first,” he said.