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Pope excommunicates mafia, urges expulsion

CASSANO ALLO JONIO, Italy -- Pope Francis launched a scathing attack on organized crime during a trip to the heartland of a feared syndicate on Sunday, declaring 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 told the congregation.

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 pontiff 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,” the pope said as he met Coco's father and grandmothers, according to a Vatican spokesman.

Francis visited the Calabria region despite fears that 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.

Youths 'must say no'

Many of the inmates the pope met at Castrovillari were serving time for mafia-related crimes.

Under a blistering southern sun, Francis clasped the hands of some of the 200 prisoners, several of them weeping and throwing their arms around him.

Francis stopped to speak with a group of disabled people in a large crowd of faithful outside the jail, before heading by helicopter to Coco's hometown of Cassano allo Jonio.

There the pope, who was met with cheers and the release of dozens of yellow and white balloons — the Vatican colours — visited a hospice before sharing a lunch of spaghetti and meatballs with poor people and young drug addicts.

“Strong is he who, once fallen, manages to rise up again,” the pontiff told the addicts.

Francis then made a short stop to pray at the spot in the nearby town of Sibari where a priest was beaten to death in January with an iron bar in a failed extortion attempt.

At the mass attended by more than 250,000 people at the close of day he warned young people that they “must say no” or risk being absorbed into the mafia world.

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