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Pope Makes Silent Pilgrimage to Auschwitz


Pope Francis walks through the gate of the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29, 2016.

Pope Francis walked in silence through the notorious former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland Friday.

With his head bowed and dressed in white, the pontiff stepped through the entrance gate bearing a wrought iron sign with the German slogan of camp's Nazi administrators: "Arbeit Macht Frei" - "work will set you free."

The Nazis murdered more than one million people at Auschwitz during World War II. Most of the victims were Jews.

Francis sat on a bench at Auschwitz and prayed silently for 15 minutes. He had said earlier he would not make any speeches in Auschwitz, paraphrasing a Jewish proverb that sometimes no words say the most.

The leader of the world's Roman Catholic Church later met individually with elderly survivors of the camp, kissing each of them on both cheeks.

He placed a large white candle at the Death Wall where prisoners were executed, and wrote a message in the camp's memorial book asking God to forgive such cruelty.

Francis also knelt and prayed in the dark and damp prison cell where the Catholic saint Maximilian Kolbe was starved before being executed. Kolbe, a Polish priest, offered his life to the Nazis to save the life of another man condemned to die at Auschwitz.

Pope Francis prays during his visit to the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29, 2016.
Pope Francis prays during his visit to the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29, 2016.

Reflecting on his visit later in Krakow, his next stop, Francis said, "Cruelty did not end in Auschwitz and Birkenau." He lamented that such crimes of hatred still occur in places afflicted by war, where torture is practiced, where prisons are overcrowded and children are starving.

Francis, a Jesuit priest born in Argentina, is the first pontiff in modern times who did not live through the war in Europe. Friday was the third day of his five-day visit to Poland.

He stumbled and fell to the ground when he missed a step at one of Poland's holiest sites, a shrine in Czestochowa honoring the "Black Madonna," a revered 14th-century icon of the Virgin Mary that many Poles believe is a source of miracles. Aides rushed to his side, but Francis was unhurt.

He has also met with Polish political and religious leaders and journalists, greeted pilgrims and taken part in World Youth Day, a global gathering of young Catholics.

*An earlier version of this story wrongly identified the death camp the pope visited as a Polish death camp. VOA regrets the error.