, VATICAN CITY, May 25 – Pope Benedict XVI appealed on Sunday for prayers for the thousands who died in China’s May 12 earthquake, expressing sympathy with their families "in these their hours of anguish."
Addressing pilgrims including Chinese visitors on St Peter’s Square in Rome, the pope asked them to "confide to the merciful love of God all their fellow citizens who in recent days died as a result of the earthquake which affected such a vast part of the country."
The pontiff said he felt close to all those grieving for lost ones and wished for all the survivors in the disaster zone a return as soon as possible to normal daily life.
More than 5.4 million people were left homeless by the tragedy whose death toll has continued to rise, with the government putting the figure Sunday at 62,664, with another 23,775 missing.
A strong aftershock jolted southwestern China on Sunday, killing at least one person and rattling residents still reeling from the massive earthquake two weeks ago.
Speaking a day after World Day of Prayer for China instituted by the Vatican, Pope Benedict recalled the need for support to "all those in China, who despite daily difficulties continue to believe, hope and love."
There are estimated to be several million Roman Catholics in China, split between members of an official church and clandestine believers.
The Vatican is trying to improve relations with the Chinese government to unite Chinese Catholics in one church under papal authority.
This strategy has prompted the pope to moderate criticism of the Beijing over violence against protesters in Tibet.