CASTELNUOVO DI PORTO, Italy — Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of Muslim, Christian and Hindu refugees Thursday and declared them all children of the same God, as he performed a gesture of welcome and brotherhood at a time of increased anti-Muslim sentiment following the Brussels attacks.
Francis denounced the carnage as a "gesture of war" carried out by blood-thirsty people beholden to the weapons industry during an Easter Week Mass with asylum-seekers at a shelter in Castelnuovo di Porto, outside Rome.
The Holy Thursday rite re-enacts the foot-washing ritual Jesus performed on his apostles before being crucified, and is meant as a gesture of service. Francis contrasted that gesture with the "gesture of destruction" carried out by the Brussels attackers, saying they wanted to destroy the brotherhood of humanity represented by the migrants.
"We have different cultures and religions, but we are brothers and we want to live in peace," Francis said in his homily, delivered off-the-cuff in the windy courtyard of the center.
Several of the migrants then wept as Francis knelt before them, poured holy water from a brass pitcher over their feet, wiped them clean and kissed them.
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Pope kisses feet of Muslim refugees, says, 'We are brothers'
Pope Francis (R) wears a plastic poncho as he waves to well wishers after a mass in Tacloban on January 17, 2015. Pope Francis will spend an emotional day in the Philippines on January 17 with survivors of a catastrophic super typhoon that claimed thousands of lives, highlighting his concern over climate change. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
Harlem Globetrotters' Hi-Lite Bruton, second from left, Ant Atitkson, third from left, look at teammate Flight Time Lang, right, helping Pope Francis spin the ball on his finger as they meet during the general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 6, 2015. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - JUNE 25: Pope Francis holds his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on June 25, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. This will be the last Pope's weekly audience before the suspension of the event for the summer. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis wears a traditional Mexican sombrero hat he received as a gift by a Mexican journalist aboard the plane during the flight from Rome to Habana, Cuba, on his way to a week-long trip to Mexico, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. The pontiff is scheduled to stop in Cuba for an historical meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill that the Vatican sees as a historic step in the path toward healing the 1,000-year schism that split Christianity. At right is Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi. (Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP)
A gust of wind blows Pope Francis' mantle during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Faithful take selfies with Pope Francis during his visit at the St. Joseph parish church in Rome, Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014. Pope Francis will celebrate his 78th birthday on Dec. 17. Pope Francis is encouraging people to strive for joy, telling his worldwide flock, "We've never heard of a sad saint." (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - AUGUST 04: Pope Francis waves as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for an audience with thousands of altar servers from around Europe on August 4, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. The encounter was part of the ninth International Pilgrimage of Acolytes and Altar Servers. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis puts on a cap of "Scholas Ocurrentes" signed by students at the end of a ceremony at the Banado Norte neighbourhood in Asuncion, Paraguay, Sunday, July 12, 2015. "Scholas Ocurrentes" is a global project to support education. Pope Francis begins the last day of a weeklong South American tour on Sunday with a stop in Banado Norte, an Asuncion slum that borders the Paraguay river that frequently floods it and makes its dirt roads impassable pools of mud. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)
Pope Francis kisses a child upon his arrival for the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015. Pope Francis enters his 80th year on Thursday amid mounting hopes among his critics that it will be his last _ at least as pope. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis and President Barack Obama smile as they exchange gifts, at the Vatican Thursday, March 27, 2014. President Barack Obama called himself a "great admirer" of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic first meeting comes as Obama's administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception. (AP Photo/Gabriel Bouys, Pool)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - NOVEMBER 26: Pope Francis attends his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on November 26, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During today's General Audience Pope Francis told pilgrims the Church is on a continuing journey towards heaven. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
A pilgrim throws a blue hat in direction of Pope Francis (C) as he stands on the popemobile and waves to the crowd in St Peter's square for the 60th anniversary of the Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation) catholic mouvement on March 7, 2015 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
A balloon flies past Pope Francis during his general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on May 14, 2014. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Vatican Swiss Guard salutes Pope Francis holding his skull-cap as he leaves after the morning session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. Francis has urged bishops to speak their minds about contentious issues like contraception, gays, marriage and divorce at the start of the meeting aimed at making the church's teaching on family matters relevant to today's Catholics. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - JANUARY 29: Pope Francis kisses a little girl as he arrives at his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on January 29, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. After his appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, today Pontiff was also found to be represented in a graffiti in Rome that portrays him in a superhero vest. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gesticulates as he is driven through the crowd, in Mother Teresa Square in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis denounced that extremists around the world are "perverting" religion to justify violence as he arrived Sunday in Albania, a Balkan nation where Christians and Muslims endured brutal religious oppression under communism but today live and work together peacefully. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: Pope Francis waves from the back of his Fiat after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In this March 21, 2015 pool photo, made available Monday, March 23, 2015, Pope Francis wears a helmet as he meets youths in Naples, Italy. Pope Francis made an impassioned defense of the unemployed during a speech to people in the poor Neapolitan neighborhood of Scampia Saturday. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, Pool)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis loses his 'papalina' cup as he catches a baseball ball thrown by a faithful at the end of his weekly audience at St. Peter's Square on September 24, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During his General Audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis reflected on his Apostolic Voyage to Albania. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
A gust of wind blows Pope Francis mantle during his weekly general audience in St. Peter Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Circus artists perform for Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Pope Francis uses his sleeves as a muffler to keep his hands warm as he sits at the beginning of his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. Pope Francis arrived at his weekly general audience donning a white double-breasted winter coat and scarf. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Pope Francis arrives for the afternoon session of the Synod of bishops, at the Vatican, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015. Pope Francis directed the attention of the world's bishops to real-world crises Friday by denouncing the escalation of conflicts in Syria and Iraq and urging greater diplomacy to end the "humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions." (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Pope Francis, wearing a red scarf, has a light moment as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the Vatican after an audience with with Altar boys and girls Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis and Bolivia's President Evo Morales wear traditional Bolivian hats during the second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Thursday, July 9, 2015. Francis gave a late-afternoon speech to delegates at the gathering. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis attends his general audience at St Peter's square on May 28, 2014 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
APARECIDA, BRAZIL - JULY 24: Pope Francis takes communion as he celebrates Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida on July 24, 2013 in Aparecida, Brazil. The shrine attracts millions each year and honors the dark-skinned Virgin of Aparecida, who is considered the patron saint of Brazil. Pilgrims throughout the world are joining Pope Francis for his visits to various locations in Brazil from July 22- July 28 during the Catholic Church's World Youth Day celebrations. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Pope Francis blesses a baby during an audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Saturday, May 31, 2014. The pontiff met with children from poor neighborhoods in Naples and Rome at risk of leaving school. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)
Pope Francis exchanges his skull cap with one donated to him by a pilgrim during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. Pope Francis urged governments and legislatures on Wednesday to do more to end modern-day slavery, calling for better laws and policies to prevent human trafficking, protect its victims and prosecute those responsible. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis loses his skull cap as he disembarks from his plane shortly upon arrival from Sri Lanka, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, south of Manila, Philippines. Pope Francis arrived Thursday for a five-day apostolic visit in this predominantly Catholic nation in Asia. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
TOPSHOT - Pope Francis takes a sip of 'Mate', a traditional South American infused drink, with Argentinian soldiers of the United Nation during the weekly general audience at St Peter's square on February 3, 2016 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis listens to a video message from a journalist's tablet, as he greets journalists on board he flight to Nairobi, Kenya, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015. Pope Francis is traveling to Africa for a six-day visit that is taking him to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
TOPSHOT - Pope Francis looks on as artists perform during his weekly general audience in St Peter's square on February 3, 2016 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI / AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis keeps the balance of a ball during a meeting with the members of the Italian Sports Center in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Saturday, June 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - SEPTEMBER 16: The robes of Pope Francis are blown over his head by a gust of wind as he holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on September 16, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pope Francis on Wednesday appealed for prayers for his Apostolic Voyage to Cuba and to the United States, which begins on Saturday. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
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Francis was greeted with a banner reading "Welcome" in a variety of languages as he walked down a makeshift aisle to celebrate the Mass. But only a fraction of the 892 asylum-seekers living at the shelter attended, and many of the seats were left empty. Those who came out, though, received a personal greeting: At the end of the Mass, Francis greeted each refugee, one by one, posing for selfies and accepting notes as he moved down the rows.
Vatican rules had long called for only men to participate in the foot-washing ritual, and past popes and many priests traditionally performed it on 12 Catholic men, recalling Jesus' 12 apostles and further cementing the doctrine of an all-male priesthood.
Francis shocked many Catholics within weeks of his 2013 election by performing the ritual on women and Muslims at a juvenile detention center. After years of violating the rules outright, Francis in January changed the regulations to explicitly allow women and girls to participate.
The Vatican said Thursday that four women and eight men took part. The women included an Italian Catholic who works at the center and three Eritrean Coptic Christian migrants. The men included four Catholics from Nigeria, three Muslims from Mali, Syria and Pakistan and a Hindu man from India.
The Vatican's new norms said anyone from the "people of God" could be chosen to participate in the ceremony. While the phrase "people of God" refers to baptized Christians, the decree also said that pastors should instruct "both the chosen faithful and others so that they may participate in the rite consciously, actively and fruitfully," suggesting that the rite could be open to non-Catholics as well.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican norms are meant for traditional liturgies in Catholic communities, not necessarily a unique papal Mass where the overall message is one of universal brotherhood and the love of God for all his children.
"We must always take the pastoral context into account," Lombardi said in an email. "Norms that are appropriate for a parish celebration aren't to be considered binding on a very unique celebration of the pope in a refugee center with a non-Christian majority."
Francis clearly intended the message to be universal.
"All of us, together: Muslims, Hindi, Catholics, Copts, Evangelicals. But brothers, children of the same God," he said. "We want to live in peace, integrated."
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