Pope visits Italian quake zone

Pope Benedict XVI speaks to quake survivors at a tented camp in the village of Onna.
Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday visited two towns hit hard by the recent earthquake in central Italy, meeting with survivors and offering prayers.

The pope flew by helicopter from Vatican City to a tent camp near the village of Onna, where he led a prayer for the hundreds killed in the April 6 quake. The camp houses hundreds of families left homeless when the magnitude-6.3 quake destroyed their homes. Residents there welcomed the pope, who kissed and hugged some of the children. “I have come here personally to this splendid and hurt land of yours, which is living days of great pain and precariousness, to express in the most direct way my kind closeness,” the pope told residents. “I’ve followed the news with apprehension, sharing with you your consternation … for the dead, along with your anxious worries about how much you’ve lost in a brief moment. “I am now here with you and would like to hug each one of you with affection,” he said. “The church is all here with me, near your suffering.” The pope then headed to the town of L’Aquila, near the epicenter. He planned to stop in the town’s most venerated church, the 13th-century Basilica of Collemaggio, whose dome collapsed in the earthquake.

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The basilica is the biggest in the surrounding Abruzzo region and is the burial place for Pope Celestine V, who has been interred there since 1327. Pope Benedict planned to kneel in prayer in front of Celestine’s urn, the Vatican said. He then planned to visit the ruins of a dormitory where eight students died in the quake, the Vatican said. He was expected to meet with some surviving students.

Also on Benedict’s agenda was a short meeting with mayors and parish priests in the earthquake-hit region, the Vatican said. The earthquake struck early in the morning, as many people slept. Nearly 300 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless.