December 31, 2013 / 6:23 PM / 5 years ago

Don't be blind to refugees and the needy, pope says in appeal

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis urged the people of Rome not to let the beauty of their city to blind them to the growing number of homeless, refugees, and unemployed living among them.

Pope Francis celebrates the First Vespers and Te Deum prayers in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito

Francis, who is also the bishop of Rome, has made appeals for people to reach out to the poor in a personal way a hallmark of his papacy, presided at a solemn vespers ceremony on Tuesday in St. Peter’s to mark the end of the year.

“Rome is full of tourists but it is also full of refugees,” the head of the 1.2 billion member Roman Catholic Church said in his homily at the service known as the “Te Deum” prayers of thanksgiving.

He asked Romans not to see their city just as a “picture postcard” metropolis but to open their eyes to the many people who are unemployed, underpaid and suffering from “material and moral poverty”.

Francis, who has brought a simpler style to the Vatican, was known as the “slum bishop” when he was in his native Buenos Aires because of his frequent visit to the poorest neighborhoods in the Argentine capital.

According to the Italian Catholic charity group Sant’ Egidio, which helps the poor, refugees and immigrants, there are about 8,000 homeless people in Rome and the number has grown by about 10 percent in recent years.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said 7,800 migrants and asylum seekers arrived in Italy in the first half of the year alone, many of whom have fled from the fighting in Syria.

Many other needy people in Rome have a roof over their heads but the economic crisis has forced them to look to charities for meals and social services, according to the group, which runs soup kitchens around the Italian capital.

Earlier this month, data from national statistics office Istat showed a third of people living in Italy risked poverty or social exclusion, compared with a European average of 24.8 percent. Just over 21 percent were not able to heat their homes adequately, up from 18 percent in 2011.

After the vespers service, Francis visited the traditional life-size nativity scene in St Peter’s Square and exchanged new year’s wishes with people in the square.

Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Louise Heavens

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