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Pope Francis greets mayors as he arrives to lead a special audience for Italy quake victims in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican January 5, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

(reuters_tickers)

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Thursday encouraged victims of Italy's recent earthquakes that killed some 300 people to "rebuild hearts" as well as houses by seeking the reconciliation that can come from tragedies.

The pope delivered an impromptu talk to several thousand people from areas hit by a string of powerful earthquakes from August to November that flattened entire towns in the Umbria, Lazio and Marche regions.

"Some of you have lost so much, not only your homes but also children and parents ... but miracles can come from times of pain, such as reconciliation (among neighbours)," he said.

"Those are the times when we re-discover ourselves, with a kiss or an embrace, with mutual assistance, and even with tears. Crying alone does good .... but crying together is better. We re-discover ourselves by crying together," he said.

A number of people in the Vatican's vast audience hall were moved to tears when he urged them to "rebuild hearts" with hope, even though they would carry the scars of the quake with them for the rest of their lives.

Francis spoke for about 20 minutes with no text after listening to several people who recounted their experiences, and the crowd applauded when he said, "I wanted to take your words and make them mine because in your situation the worst thing that one can do is deliver a sermon."

One of the quakes had a magnitude of 6.6, making it the strongest to strike Italy for 36 years. Each has been followed by thousands of aftershocks, and thousands of people are still living in tents and temporary housing.

Francis made a surprise visit on Oct. 4 to the towns hit by the first series of quakes.

The quakes have reshaped more than 600 square km (230 square miles) of land, lowering areas around the epicentre by up to 70 cm (28 inches), according to data released by Italy's National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology.

(Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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