L'AQUILA, Italy – Pope Benedict XVI visited the earthquake-ravaged area of central Italy on Tuesday to comfort survivors and give them hope to rebuild, visiting tent camps and a dormitory whose collapse epitomized the shoddy construction blamed for many of the 300 deaths.
The pope's first stop was the hamlet of Onna, which was leveled by the April 6 quake, and where around 40 of its 300 residents were killed. More than 260 survivors live in tents clustered in a parking lot that was turned to mud by a steady rain that fell as the pope arrived.
The pontiff kissed a baby held up to him by his mother, and held the hands of many of the homeless who gathered for the intimate, brief visit.
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"I would like to affectionately embrace you one by one," the pope told them, standing on a makeshift stage in front of a tent, a few hundred survivors just steps a way. "Had it been possible, I would have liked to visit each village, each neighborhood, go to each tent camp and meet everyone."
He encouraged the survivors to carry on, saying he admired their "courage, dignity and faith" in the face of tragedy.
The 6.3-magnitude quake claimed 296 lives in the dozens of towns and villages in the Abruzzo region in the Apennine mountains. About 50,000 people were driven from their homes, and thousands of buildings were toppled outright or heavily damaged.
Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the shoddy construction blamed for many of the building collapses, looking into both the construction work and materials used amid allegations that sea sand was mixed with cement, corroding it and weakening it.
Benedict appealed to government institutions and companies to turn the relief work into a long-term project for rebuilding. The victims, the pope said, "are waiting to see the rebirth of their land, which must go back to be adorned with beautiful and solid homes and churches."
In L'Aquila, the regional capital, Benedict visited the ruins of the 13th-century Santa Maria di Collemaggio basilica, the symbol of the city, whose roof partially caved in during the quake.
The pope entered the building with firefighters by his side, then prayed before the salvaged remains of Pope Celestine V, the 13th-century hermit and saint who was the only pope to resign.
Minutes later, Benedict exchanged words with a dozen students outside what remains of L'Aquila's collapsed university dormitory, which was a main focal point of grief as rescue workers searched the debris for students trapped inside. Seven died at the site.
The students knelt before the pope and kissed his hand, some visibly emotional. One gave him a letter.
Investigating prosecutors are looking at the dormitory and L'Aquila's hospital, both of which were built after seismic standards in this quake-prone region were raised.
The pope then greeted civil protection crews who are caring for the people living in tents and was to deliver a speech, before returning to the Vatican.
"Imagine the pope, coming to this village," marveled Concetta De Angelis, tears in her eyes just moments after the pope greeted her in Onna. "A pope has never come here. This village isn't even on the map!"
Her friend, Silvana Paolucci, was even more emotional, saying she had wept as soon as she was face-to-face with the pontiff. "He embraced us, he touched my cheek. It was beautiful," said Paolucci, who lost an aunt and nephew in the quake and whose home was now uninhabitable.
Among the civil protection workers awaiting the pope was Germana D'Onofrio, who cooks meals for the homeless. "I feed the body and the pope feeds the spirit," she said.
The pontiff had been scheduled to fly to the area by helicopter, but heavy winds and rains forced the Vatican to change that plan. Benedict was driven instead, but by the time his speech was concluded in Onna, a strong sun had broken through the clouds.