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LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AFP) – Locals on an Italian island near North Africa that has seen tens of thousands of migrant landings said on Sunday that a surprise visit by Pope Francis made them feel they were no longer alone facing the emergency.
Vatican flags lined Lampedusa's busy fishing port and a shopkeeper hung out a white sheet with the words "Thank you, thank you Francis!" scrawled on it.
As he put the finishing touches to a painting of waves on the altar for Monday's mass, local nature reserve keeper Vincenzo Billeci said he was grateful.
"It means a lot to us islanders and to the whole world. It means we're not alone," said the 40-year-old.
The pope will be given a crucifix and a chalice made with wood from the ships that migrants cross the Mediterranean on, dozens of which lie discarded nearby littered with shoes, clothes and empty water cans.
The service will be celebrated on an altar made from a fishing boat and use a lectern made of oars and rudders -- a tribute to the sun-blasted rocky outcrop's proud seafaring history.
"I picked up material from the coastline and from the abandoned boats," said local artist Franco Tuccio, who fashioned the objects to honour the pope's wish to spotlight the perilous and sometimes deadly crossings.
The Vatican has said the pope wants to mourn for the hundreds of migrants and refugees who have drowned trying to reach Lampedusa. The United Nations estimates around 40 people have died so far this year and some 500 perished in the whole of 2012.
"The pope is coming here to speak to the two shores of the Mediterranean, to Europe and to Africa," said Giusi Nicolini, mayor of some 6,000 inhabitants.
"Up till now the Mediterranean has only been a cemetery, but it should be a place for cooperation.
"This is a great gift, an embrace of my community which has carried this great burden for such a long time -- a burden of death and assistance," she said.
This is the pope's first trip outside of Rome since he was elected in March and was announced just last week -- a stark break with tradition under which papal trips like this would be planned months in advance.
It is also the first ever visit by any leader of the world's Catholics to Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia than it is to the rest of Italy.
Carlo Urbinati, who owns a holiday home on Lampedusa, said islanders deserved recognition for helping to rescue migrants and offering aid when they arrived.
"This island has a lot of problems and it's good that the pope comes to highlight them. It will bring this island to the attention of the world," he said.
More than 10,000 people are expected to attend the pope's mass and the Vatican has said the pope will also meet dozens of migrants who want to meet him.
"They've told us it's really important to them," said Viviana Valastro from the charity Save the Children.
She said it was particularly significant for them that the pope was honouring those who have lost their lives.
"We have people who have lost fathers and brothers," she said.
Father Stefano Nastasi, the jovial parish priest whose simple letter to the Argentine pope was the reason behind the visit, said he was overjoyed.
"We are a frontier geographically but we are the heart of the Mediterranean and everything goes into the heart and is renewed from the heart," he said.
Local archbishop Francesco Montenegro said he hoped the pope's visit would teach more tolerance.
"To watch a black man play football or sing we are ready to pay any money but when one says he wants to live here, we turn our backs or we call the police.
"Something is wrong. And I think what is wrong is that we do not want poverty in our midst," he said.