Pope Francis to mafia: repent or 'end up in hell'

Francis's stance on organised crime in contrast with church's perceived former reluctance to criticise mafia bosses

Pope Francis has made his strongest attack to date on the mafia, telling organised crime bosses they will end up in hell if they do not "convert" and give up their lives of "bloodstained money [and] blood-stained power". In an echo of John Paul II's appeal to mafia dons to renounce their "culture of death", the Argentinian urged mafiosi to "stop doing evil" as he held an unprecedented meeting with hundreds of victims' relatives in Rome.

"I feel that I cannot conclude without saying a word to the protagonists who are absent today – the men and women mafiosi," he said, quietly but forcefully. "Please change your lives. Convert yourselves. Stop doing evil."

The meeting in a church near Vatican City was the first time a pontiff had taken part in events tied to a day of commemoration held annually by the anti-mafia organisation, Libera. During a prayer vigil, the names of 842 victims were read aloud.

In his address, Francis made special reference to an attack on Monday in the southern Italian province around the city of Taranto, in which three people – two adults and a toddler – were shot dead in an apparent mafia hit.

In January, he spoke out after a three-year-old boy was killed in an apparent attack by the 'Ndrangheta, the powerful Calabrian mafia. Then, too, Francis urged those involved to "repent and convert to the Lord". He has previously condemned organised crime for "exploiting and enslaving people".

On Friday, before a packed church, the pope said it was in the criminals' own interests to change their ways. "There is still time to avoid ending up in hell. That is what is waiting for you if you continue on this path," he said. "You have had a father and a mother. Think of them. Cry a little and convert."

Expressing the hope that a "sense of responsibility" would eventually win out over corruption globally, he added: "This life that you live now will not give you happiness. The power and money that you have now from many dirty dealings, from many mafia crimes, is bloodstained money, is bloodstained power – you cannot bring them with you to the next life."

Francis's stance on organised crime is in contrast with that of some of his 20th century predecessors, who were perceived as presiding over a church reluctant to criticise mafia bosses. Victims had to wait until 1993 to hear an explicit papal condemnation, when John Paul II urged the guilty to "convert" and warned them that judgment day was coming.

That was in May. In July, two Roman churches – San Giovanni in Laterano and San Giorgio in Velabro – were damaged in bomb attacks amid a wave of violence.

Organised crime controls almost all economic and criminal activity in Calabria, Sicily and parts of Campania and Apulia, and it has greatly extended its influence in Rome and Milan in the past two decades.

Italy's main crime groups – Sicily's Cosa Nostra, Calabria's 'Ndrangheta, and the Camorra from around the southern city of Naples – have a joint annual turnover of €116bn (£97bn), according to a United Nations estimate.

The mob continues to use violence and threats to keep its grip on its territory. Threats again st local government officials have risen 66% since 2010, when the figures were first collected, according to a report published on Friday.


Lizzy Davies in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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