Pope Francis has launched a scathing attack on organised crime during a trip to the heartland of a feared syndicate.
The pontif on Saturday declared all mafia members “excommunicated” from the Catholic Church.
The mafia “is the adoration of evil and contempt for common good. This evil must be beaten, expelled,” he told worshippers near the hometown of a toddler killed in a clan war earlier this year.
“Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said.
People who are excommunicated are expelled from the Church, unless they repent, and are considered to be condemned to Hell in the afterlife.
The 77-year-old Pope was speaking at the end of a trip to the territory controlled by the powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia, where he comforted relatives of “Coco” Campolongo, a three-year-old who was shot dead in January in an apparent mob hit over money.
“It must never again happen that a child suffers in this way,” he said as he met Coco’s father and grandmothers, according to a Vatican spokesman.
Francis visited the Calabria region despite fears he might provoke the local underworld.
“I pray for him continuously. Do not despair,” Francis said during a visit to Castrovillari prison, where several members of Coco’s family are serving time for drug-related crimes.
He asked them to pass the message on to the toddler’s mother, who was also in prison at the time of his murder and is now living under house arrest.
Coco was shot in the head in January, executed along with his grandfather and his Moroccan companion after a drug debt went unpaid.
The discovery of his body strapped to a car-seat in a burnt-out Fiat Punto sent shockwaves through Italy, as did the murder just two months later of another three-year-old in the nearby Puglia region.
The Pope’s trip to what is the second-poorest region in the south of Italy aims not only to remember child victims but also highlight the problems the young have in escaping the pervasive grip of the wealthy ‘Ndrangheta.
Unemployment among the under-25s in the region stands at 56.1 per cent – the highest in Italy in 2013 according to Eurostat – and local mobsters thrive by offering idle youngsters work, luring them into their networks.
According to Save the Children Italy, more than a third of all families in the impoverished south live in communities known to be under the control of clans.