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ROME (AP) — Pope Francis ate lunch with hundreds of refugees, poor and homeless people on Sunday as he called for a renewed commitment to helping society’s weakest and denounced the “sirens of populism” that drown out their cries for help.

Francis celebrated the Catholic Church’s World Day of the Poor by inviting an estimated 1,300 poor people into the Vatican for a special Mass and luncheon. Children threw their arms around his neck as he sat at one of dozens of tables set up in the Vatican audience hall.

During the Mass that preceded it, Francis denounced the indifference that the world shows to migrants and the poor, as well as the “prophets of doom” who fuel fear and conspiracies about migrants for personal gain.

“Let us not be enchanted by the sirens of populism, which exploit people’s real needs by facile and hasty solutions,” Francis said.

This year’s commemoration takes place as Italy once again is at the heart of a European debate over migration, with the far-right-led government of Premier Giorgia Meloni going head-to-head with France over the fate of people rescued in the Mediterranean. Italy kept four rescue boats at sea for days until finally allowing three to disembark last week and forcing France to take in the fourth.

The standoff sparked a diplomatic row that resulted in France suspending its participation in a European migrant redistribution program and reinforcing its border crossings with Italy.

Francis lamented that the war in Ukraine is only adding to the plight of the poor, who are still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as from natural disasters and climate change.

“Today also, much more than in the past, many of our brothers and sisters, sorely tested and disheartened, migrate in search of hope, and many people experience insecurity due to the lack of employment or unjust and undignified working conditions,” he said.

In addition to the luncheon, free medical checks that had been halted due to COVID-19 were restarted this week in St. Peter’s Square, providing checkups, vaccines, blood tests, electrocardiograms as well as tests for hepatitis C, tuberculosis and HIV. Area parishes were also distributing 5,000 boxes of food donated by a supermarket.


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