- Benedict XVI - earthquakes - Italy
AFP - Pope Benedict XVI Tuesday visited Onna, the village worst hit by the earthquake three weeks ago in central Italy, calling for the devastated region to be "reborn".
"I encourage everyone, institutions and businesses, to see that this village and this region are reborn," he said under driving rain at a tent camp for homeless survivors outside Onna.
"I have come in person to your splendid but devastated land, which is suffering times of great pain and vulnerability, to express my closeness to you in the most direct way possible," the pope said.
The village of just 350 inhabitants lost some 40 people of the 295 who died in the April 6 earthquake, Italy's worst in a generation.
"I would like to hug you affectionately one by one," the pontiff said. "The entire (Roman Catholic) Church is with me, close to your suffering, sharing your pain for the loss of loved ones."
The pontiff, who led Easter celebrations at the Vatican just six days after the earthquake, arrived by car nearly an hour late after the bad weather nixed a plan to travel to the region by helicopter.
Benedict headed next to the Abruzzo capital L'Aquila, the epicentre of the quake some 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Rome.
He will stop at a dormitory where eight students died in the disaster.
Apart from the human cost, the earthquake also exacted a heavy toll on the medieval and Renaissance architecture that abounds in the Abruzzo region.
The pope will visit L'Aquila's Santa Maria di Collemaggio basilica that suffered serious damage in the disaster.
The church first built in the 13th century, already destroyed and rebuilt after an earthquake in 1703, is a major pilgrimage site as it houses the remains of the "hermit pope" Celestine V.
Celestine, a mountain recluse who was crowned pope in the basilica in 1294, resigned only a few months later in protest over corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, and has since been made a saint.
In homage to his humble predecessor, the pope will offer the woollen shawl or pallium he received when he was inaugurated as pontiff in 2005, reported I.Media, which specialises in Vatican affairs.
The pope will also visit the military academy where a mass funeral took place for 205 of the quake victims on April 10, when Benedict led Good Friday observances in Rome and at the Vatican.
Last week Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made the surprise announcement that the site had been chosen as the venue for a Group of Eight summit in July over the original choice of La Maddalena, an island off Sardinia.
"The more people who see with their own eyes what has happened to our city ... the better," said Isa Tuliana, a survivor sheltering at a tent camp outside L'Aquila. "This city where we were born and raised must be reborn."
Benedict's predecessor Pope John Paul II visited the central Umbria region three months after twin earthquakes killed 12 people and caused serious damage to the famous Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi in 1997.
Some survivors were critical of the pope for waiting three weeks before visiting the region.
"Everyone came except him," Giovani Nobile told AFP. "It's been 22 days that we've been in the tents. I expected him at least at the funeral."
Notably, Berlusconi travelled to the region on each of the first several days following the disaster, holding news conferences on the search and rescue efforts; President Giorgio Napolitano also went.
Benedict's predecessor John Paul II "would have already been here, reaching out to us," said Nobile.
Also at the tent camp, Marco Zanini, around 50, said the pope should not come at all because "his visit just adds more problems to those we already have."
He said parking had been barred near the tent camp for the visit, adding bitterly: "And it's raining!"