, MEXICO, Feb 18 – Pope Francis decried the “human tragedy” of migrants fleeing violence worldwide during a huge mass on Mexico’s border with the United States, where thousands have died while crossing the desert.
In a highly symbolic gesture, the pope climbed a ramp facing the Rio Grande that separates Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas, laid flowers under a black cross and blessed hundreds of migrants on the American side who waved at him.
Francis then celebrated mass with more than 300,000 Catholic faithful on the Juarez side of the border, with tens of thousands more watching it on a giant screen in an El Paso stadium.
Immigration is a hot-button issue on the US presidential campaign trail and Republican White House hopeful Donald trump criticized the pope’s decision to hold such a mass.
But the first Latin American pontiff did not directly address the politics across the border, focusing instead on the plight of migrants.
“We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant the migration of thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones,” Francis said.
“The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today.”
Central Americans have been leaving their poor and gang-infested countries in droves, crossing Mexico’s porous southern border with Guatemala on their way to the United States.
The trek across Mexico is filled with dangers — from gangs that steal, kill or seek to forcibly recruit them.
Thousands have died while crossing the scorching US-Mexico desert in the past two decades, according to official figures.
“Injustice is radicalized in the young; they are cannon fodder, persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs. Then there are the many women unjustly robbed of their lives,” Francis said in a city that has been scarred by gang wars and unexplained murders of women.
“No more death. No more exploitation. There is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance, time to implore the mercy of God.”
The pope then flew back to Rome after a five-day trip to Mexico.
– ‘Political pope’ –
The fate of 11 million undocumented immigrants is the source of vivid debate in the United States.
Trump, who wants Mexico to pay to build a wall along the border, has called the pope a “very political person.”
“I think that he doesn’t understand the problems our country has,” the billionaire real estate tycoon told the Fox Business channel last week.
“I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico.”
In response, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that, while the pope’s job was not political, “one should not be surprised that his pastoral and spiritual message has political repercussions.”
Maria Ortega Cruz Bautista, 62, traveled from Chicago to be with her family at the mass in Ciudad Juarez, a city she left 14 years ago.
She hoped the pope’s message will prompt authorities “to have more compassion and more consideration for migrants.”
In El Paso, Sandra Ovalle, 32, shared a similar feeling as she headed with her family to the Sun Bowl stadium, where the jubilant crowd performed a wave.
“We hope that the pope will make our leaders change, so that we get support and that things change for the better,” said Mexican-born Ovalle, who lives in the US state of New Mexico.
Soledad Treviso, an elderly woman who was among throngs crossing the border bridge to attend the mass, hoped that the pope could “have an influence so that migrants can stay in the United States.”
– Inmates as ‘prophets’ –
Francis used his trip to deplore Mexico’s drug violence.
He took political leaders to task, admonishing them to provide “effective security” to their people while urging the country’s youth to reject the lure of drug traffickers and for bishops to comfort their flock.
Before the mass, Francis visited a prison, nearly a week after a riot killed 49 inmates at another Mexican penitentiary.
He urged hundreds of inmates seated in the prison yard to help break the “cycle of violence.”
“The one who has suffered the greatest pain, and we could say ‘has experienced hell,’ can become a prophet in society,” he said.
Ciudad Juarez stands as a grim symbol of Mexico’s violence, but also of hope.
Turf wars between drug cartels left as many as 3,000 dead in 2010, but the carnage gradually eased, with the toll falling to 300 last year.
In his farewell, the pope recalled the faces of children he saw in Mexico: “I assure you I felt the urge to cry from seeing so much hope in a nation that has suffered so much.”