Pope heads into mafia territory in crime-ridden Naples

Agence France-Presse

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Pope heads into mafia territory in crime-ridden Naples


Up to 800,000 people are expected to gather in the southern Italian city to welcome the Argentine pontiff, who declared war on organized crime last year by 'excommunicating' all mafiosi from the Catholic Church

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis heads deep into mafia territory Saturday, March 21 with a one-day trip to Naples to visit jailbirds and the poor, amid heightened security against a possible attack by Islamist militants.

Up to 800,000 people are expected to gather in the southern Italian city to welcome the Argentine pontiff, who declared war on organized crime last year by “excommunicating” all mafiosi from the Catholic Church.

Security will be tight: apart from risks posed by gangsters with a grudge, the pope has been threatened by the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) and trips outside the Vatican are considered prime opportunities for assassination attempts.

After a massacre at a Tunisian museum this week claimed by the ISIS group, all eyes with be on the elderly pontiff’s safety, with 3,000 extra policemen deployed along the route he will take, including snipers on the rooftops.

Francis will begin the day at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, before taking a helicopter to the violent, poverty and crime-ridden Scampia neighbourhood in Naples, where he will meet with local residents.

He will then hold mass in the Piazza del Plebiscito in the historic center, a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Naples, before visiting the city’s overcrowded Poggio Reale jail, where 2,500 prisoners are squeezed into a space for 1,400. (READ: Pope to prisoners: I’m at your service)

Corruption, drugs, extortion

The pope, self-proclaimed defender of the downtrodden, will lunch with 90 of the inmates, including a dozen transsexuals, homosexuals and AIDS sufferers, according to the Catholic TV2000 television channel.

In Naples’ Cathedral he will pray in front of the relics of the city’s patron saint Januarius, where some of the former bishop’s blood in a vial is said to miraculously liquefy three times a year, according to popular legend.

The visit will wind up with a sea-front concert of Neapolitan songs performed for the 78-year old pope by youngsters.

Francis is expected to speak about the ills weighing upon the region, from endemic corruption to drug addiction, sky-high unemployment and environmental pollution in an area scarred by the illegal burning of toxic rubbish.

His fiercest words will be kept for the Camorra, the notorious Naples mafia dissected and exposed in journalist Roberto Saviano’s award-winning novel “Gomorrah” and the acclaimed 2008 film of the same name. 

Last year the pope expelled all unrepentant mafia members from the Church and condemned them to Hell in the afterlife in a move which sparked fears of retaliation from the underworld. (READ: No more child mafia victims, pope says on visit to clan heartland)

City of ‘many wounds’

During a visit to territory controlled by the powerful ‘Ndrangheta organization in the southern Italian Calabria region, he described the mafia as “the adoration of evil and contempt for common good.”

“This evil must be beaten, expelled,” he said, calling for historic ties between organized crime and the Church to be severed – an appeal he is likely to repeat in Naples.

Numerous priests fight against Italy’s big three – the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Naples – sometimes paying for their bravery with their lives.

But the Italian Church also has a darker side. Mafia dons have historically attended mass, often receiving lavish funerals and presenting themselves as Catholic benefactors, aiding local residents where the state has failed.

Priest Luigi Ciotti, who has dedicated his life to the fight against the mafia, said the pope’s visit would mean a huge amount to a city he described as “marvellous but bitter, generous, but living with many wounds.”

“We ask the Holy Father to pray for our dead,” he said in reference to those killed by the mafia, “so that their memories will stay alive and serve to imprint into everyone’s minds the desire for justice.” – Jean-Louis de la Vaissiere, AFP/Rappler.com

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