0LAMPEDUSA, Italy // Pope Francis celebrated mass on the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Monday to commemorate thousands of migrants who have died crossing the sea from North Africa, underlining his drive to put the poor at the heart of his papacy. The choice of Lampedusa for his first official trip outside Rome was highly symbolic for the pontiff, who said news reports of the deaths of desperate people trying to reach a better life that had been like "a thorn in the heart".
"We ask forgiveness for the indifference towards so many brothers and sisters," Francis said to a crowd of thousands of islanders waving caps and banners in the Vatican's yellow colours.
Speaking within sight of dozens of the abandoned boats used by the migrants, he paid tribute to the hundreds who drown every year trying to reach Europe and said he had come to Lampedusa "to reawaken consciences".
"The culture of well-being makes us think about ourselves, renders us insensitive to the cries of others," he said, urging "brotherly responsibility" and condemning a "globalisation of indifference".
Later Monday he also saluted Muslim migrants on the start of their Ramadan period of fasting and prayers and said the Catholic Church was close to them "in your search for a more dignified life".
The pope celebrated mass with a cross and a chalice made from the wood of rickety fishing boats that migrants typically arrive on, mainly from Libya and Tunisia, dozens of which lay discarded nearby.
Francis met with a group of around 50 recent arrivals, many of them young Eritreans, telling them: "We will pray for those who are no longer with us."
In tune with the new pope's informal style, the visit had less of the pomp customary for papal visits.
There were no meetings with politicians or high-ranking clergy, and the pope used a Fiat car on loan from a local inhabitant as a "popemobile".
The visit was announced only last week, contrasting with past papal trips which are usually arranged months in advance.
Just hours before he touched down, the latest boat carrying 166 migrants landed on Lampedusa, joining the waves of others who have fled northern Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions that began in 2011.
Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, head of the Vatican's migrant department, said he hoped the visit would prompt "concrete concern and solidarity to improve situations that have become inhuman and unacceptable".
Under European Union rules, asylum-seekers have to stay in the country they first arrive in and unaccompanied minors are often stuck on Lampedusa for months at a time awaiting relocation.
Lampedusa has seen an increase in arrivals in recent weeks because of improved weather conditions, with around 4,000 arriving so far this year — three times more than during the same period in 2012.
Since 1999, more than 200,000 people have arrived on Lampedusa — making the island one of biggest gateways for undocumented migration into Europe.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 40 people have died so far in 2013 — most by drowning — trying to cross from north Africa, while around 500 were reported dead or missing in 2012.
*Agence-France Presse and Reuters