Catholics should repent for turning a blind eye to the plight of migrants, Pope Francis said on Monday during a visit to the remote Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of immigrants arrive each year.

The Pope is said to have decided to visit the Mediterranean island after hearing that 10 people drowned off its coast in mid-June when Tunisian fishermen allegedly cut loose a tuna-fishing cage that shipwrecked migrants were hanging on to.

“When I heard this news, my mind constantly returned to it like a painful thorn in the heart,” Pope Francis said while celebrating Mass before thousands of people.

‘Globalisation of indifference’

He railed against what he termed “the globalisation of indifference” and “the culture of wealth,” which make people insensitive to others.

“We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants,” he posted on Twitter after his homily. “God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.” The Pope earlier took a trip aboard an Italian Coast Guard patrol boat, threw a wreath into the sea in memory of the victims and met migrants in the port. More than 1,500 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2011, according to the latest UN data.

Italy, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, has seen a rise in anti-immigration parties, such as the Northern League, and signed an agreement with Libya when it was ruled by Moamer Gaddafi to send immigrants back to the North African country without checking whether they had grounds for asylum. That policy was criticised by the Vatican and the United Nations.

Lampedusa, located half-way between Sicily and Tunisia, is often a point of arrival for migrants rescued at sea. Italian authorities intercepted a boat carrying 166 people hours before the start of the Papal visit.

Andrea Riccardi, a former Italian Development Minister and founder of a Catholic charity, wrote in the Corriere della Sera newspaper that more than 200,000 people landed on the island from 1999 to 2012 while an estimated 19,000 people had drowned in the Mediterranean since 1988.

The visit to Lampedusa was the first trip of Francis’ papacy apart from a short visit to his predecessor Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome, after his election in March.

Pope Francis, who has taken over the leadership of an institution plagued by financial and sexual abuse scandals, has made a point of shunning pomp and protocol.

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