VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis urged Europe to open its doors to refugees Wednesday as he marked the anniversary of a deadly migrant shipwreck off Sicily by meeting with survivors and relatives of the victims.
Some 368 people -- most of them Eritrean and Syrian asylum-seekers -- drowned Oct. 3, 2013 when their smugglers' boat capsized off the island of Lampedusa. The tragedy jolted the EU and prompted Italy to beef up its Mediterranean sea patrols, which have rescued some 160,000 people this year alone.
On Wednesday, nearly 40 survivors and relatives of the Lampedusa victims met with Francis in the Vatican auditorium before heading to Lampedusa for ceremonies to commemorate the anniversary.
Francis, who has frequently lamented the plight of refugees, said he was speechless, unable to find the words to comfort people who had faced such tragedy.
"I ask all the men and women of Europe to open the doors of their hearts," Francis said. "I want to let you know I'm near you, I pray for you, and I pray that doors that are closed are opened."
Francis visited Lampedusa months before the October tragedy to show solidarity with migrants following the death of a dozen would-be refugees over the summer. During a Mass on the island, he denounced the "globalization of indifference" that greets migrants who risk their lives in search of safety and a better life for themselves.
Members of the refugee delegation thanked Francis for his support and urged him to back their efforts to recover remains of the victims; some of the bodies haven't been turned over to relatives.
"It was good, but we need more help," said Smliva Zeregherghis, an Eritrean who was part of the delegation. His wife, Wine, was killed in the shipwreck as she attempted to join him in Britain, where he has been working as a manual laborer for six years.