Pope Francis is spending two days visiting Marseille, with hundreds of thousands of Catholics expected to attend a parade in the city.
Pope Francis blasted the "fanaticism of indifference" that greets migrants seeking a better life, as he arrived Friday in the Mediterranean port of Marseille amid a new influx of would-be refugees from Africa that has sparked a backlash from some of Europe's increasingly anti-migrant leaders.
Opening a brief, overnight visit to the French port, Francis presided over a silent moment of prayer at a memorial dedicated to sailors and migrants lost at sea. He was surrounded by Marseille's faith leaders and representatives of migrant rescue organisations that have increasingly come under fire from Europe's populist leaders.
The visit, scheduled months ago, came as Europe's migrant dilemma is again in headlines, after the Italian island of Lampedusa was overwhelmed last week by nearly 7,000 migrants who arrived in a day, more than its resident population.
"Cruelty, a lack of humanity. A terrible lack of humanity," Francis said of the Lampedusa drama as he flew to Marseille.
History's first Latin American pope has made the plight of migrants a priority of his 10-year pontificate, travelling to Lampedusa in his first trip as pope to honour migrants who drowned, celebrating Mass on the US-Mexico border and most spectacularly, bringing home 12 Syrian Muslims on his plane after visiting a Greek refugee camp.
Citing the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger, Francis has developed a mantra, exhorting governments to welcome, promote, protect and integrate desperate people fleeing wars, poverty and climate crises.
On Friday, Francis gathered with Marseille priests at the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica and then led an interfaith prayer at its nearby memorial, which stands on a rocky outcropping overlooking Marseille and the Mediterranean Sea. There, Francis said far too many people fleeing war, poverty, misery and climate disasters had never made it to shore.
"And so this beautiful sea has become a huge cemetery, where many brothers and sisters are deprived even of the right to a grave."
Adding to his prepared remarks, he extended a special thank-you to the humanitarian groups that rescue migrants, blasting efforts to block their rescues as "gestures of hatred" — an apparent reference to Italy's frequent impounding of rescue boats on technical violations.
Francis is in Marseille to preside over the closing session of a gathering of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops. But his two-day visit to Marseille is aimed at sending a message well beyond the Catholic faithful to Europe, North Africa and beyond.
About 350,000 Catholic faithful were expected in the city over the weekend, including 100,000 to line Marseille's major avenue ahead of a Saturday Mass at the Velodrome stadium that President Emmanuel Macron is expected to attend. The city was put under high security, including through kilometres of barriers and dozens of surveillance cameras deployed along Francis' route.
Francis' visit comes 10 years after his papacy-opening pilgrimage to Lampedusa, which is the migrant smugglers' destination of choice because it's closer to Africa than the Italian mainland. There, Francis celebrated Mass on an altar made of shipwrecked wood, tossed flowers in the sea in tribute to migrants who had drowned and decried the "globalisation of indifference" that the world shows desperate migrants.
On Friday, he issued a more emphatic variation on that theme, blasting the "fanaticism of indifference" that greets migrants, a recognition that in the 10 years since, Europe has only hardened its line on migration with some countries emphasising border fences, repatriations and the possibility of a naval blockade to keep migrants out.
In that same decade, according to the International Organization of Migration, an estimated 28,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, while others have been subject to horrendous conditions in Libyan detention centres where abuse is rife.
"We cannot be resigned to seeing human beings treated as bargaining chips, imprisoned and tortured in atrocious ways," Francis said in clear reference to the Libyan camps. "We can no longer watch the drama of shipwrecks caused by the cruel trafficking and the fanaticism of indifference."
He insisted that people who are at risk of drowning "when abandoned to the waves" must be rescued.
"It's a duty of humanity; it's a duty of civilization!" he said.
He spoke in front of a monument made up of the cross of Camargue, a symbol composed of a Christian cross, an anchor and a heart embodying faith, hope and charity. The words "to those who perished and disappeared at sea, victims of illegal immigration" were added to the memorial in 2010, after some migrants were saved from a shipwreck by a French ship.