Pope Benedict XVI urged Italy on Sunday to welcome immigrants fleeing to its shores, invoking the historic role of Venice and the once influential church in nearby Aquileia as cultural bridges during his two-day visit to northern Italy.

“The churches created by Aquileia are called today to renew that ancient spiritual unity, in particular in light of the phenomenon of immigration and the new geopolitical circumstances,” said Benedict XVI during his homily to more than 300,000 worshippers.

Italy has been struggling to cope with thousands of illegal migrants who have reached its shores in recent months as they flee unrest in northern Africa. On Sunday, about 400 were rescued when their boat crashed against rocks at the port of Lampedusa, Italy's closest port.

The Pope's message of tolerance for immigrants appeared especially pointed as the visit takes place in the region of Veneto, one of the strongholds of the anti-immigration Northern League, though Venice itself has long been run by centre-left administrations.

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