Pope Francis has chosen the southern Italian island of Lampedusa for his first trip outside Rome, to show solidarity with tens of thousands of African refugees who each year brave a perilous journey there in flimsy boats, the Vatican said on Monday.
Francis will make the trip days after publishing his first encyclical, or doctrinal letter, entitled Light of Faith
. It will build on work begun by retired Pope Benedict XVI, and will be released on Friday, the Vatican said.
The small island, Italy's southernmost point, is the conduit for mostly African immigrants fleeing conflict or economic hardship in order to enter the European Union.
FILE - Pope Francis waves as he leads the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square, April 10, 2013.
The Vatican said Francis was “profoundly touched” by the flood of migrants, and would throw a wreath of flowers into the sea during the visit on July 8 in memory of the many who have drowned off the island.
The pontiff also will meet groups of immigrants who have made the crossing, and will celebrate with Mass in a sports center.
A holding center on Lampedusa built to hold 380 long has been overwhelmed, and its predicament has become a symbol in Europe and Italy for those who see immigration as out of control.
Lampedusa's regular population of about 6,000 frequently has been outnumbered by migrants sleeping in improvised tent encampments dotted around the island, which in normal times thrives on fishing and tourism.
More than 50,000 people arrived there in a surge caused by unrest in North Africa in 2011, and recent good weather has caused another increase in the hundreds arriving each week.
Encyclicals are the highest form of papal writing, and they give the clearest indication of what the pope and the Vatican think about specific social and moral issues. Benedict wrote three encyclicals during his papacy.