Pope Francis walks in Amatrice, Italy, October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters(reuters_tickers)
By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - Pope Francis made a surprise visit on Tuesday to towns and villages devastated by an earthquake that killed nearly 300 people in central Italy in August, comforting residents who lost everything and praying together for the dead.
The Vatican, which kept the trip secret until he arrived, issued pictures showing him standing alone and praying amid the rubble of Amatrice, one of the hardest-hit towns, with its still-standing church bell tower in the distance.
Addressing distraught residents with a megaphone, he said he wanted to come earlier but he did not want "to bother anyone" and preferred to let things settle down, particularly building a makeshift school for the children.
"But from the first moment, I knew I wanted to come here, simply to say I am close to you. That I am close to you, nothing more. I pray for you. My closeness and my prayers are what I offer to you. May the Lord bless all of you," he said.
"In this moment of sadness and pain, let's move forward while remembering our dear ones who died here under the rubble. Let us pray for them," he said.
He visited the "red zone", which covers the centre of Amatrice and is closed to the public because it is still dangerous, with most of the buildings either levelled or considered too badly damaged to live in.
A parent broke down in tears in the school as he greeted the pope. Other residents stopped the pope's car to touch his hand from the window as he moved from town to town.
The visit took place on the feast of the pope's namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.
Luca Cari, spokesman for the national fire brigades, said during the visit to Amatrice's "red zone" the pope stopped to pray with the rescue workers and thanked them.
On the plane returning from Azerbaijan on Sunday, Francis said he had been given a choice of three days when he could visit but would not reveal which one he had chosen.
He said at the time he wanted to visit "privately, alone, as a priest, as a bishop, as pope, but alone, privately. I want to be close to the people."
The earthquake, which struck on Aug. 24, flattened several towns and villages in the Lazio and Marche regions northeast of Rome and caused damage of at least 4 billion euros (3.53 billion pound), according to government estimates.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Janet Lawrence)