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'
TOPSHOT - Pope Francis laughs as he greets people during his weekly general audience at the Paul VI audience Hall on December 7, 2016 in Vatican. / AFP / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 26: Pope Francis attends his general weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on October 26, 2016 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Pope Francis wears a traditional Mexican sombrero hat received as a gift by a Mexican journalist on February 12, 2016, aboard the plane to Havana.
Pope Francis headed to Cuba on Friday looking to heal a 1,000-year-old rift in Christianity before embarking on a tour of Mexico dominated by modern day problems of drug-related violence and migration. / AFP / POOL / ALESSANDRO DI MEO (Photo credit should read ALESSANDRO DI MEO/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 23: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Pope Francis (L) walk through the colonnade prior to an Oval Office meeting at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Pope begins his first trip to the United States at the White House followed by a visit to St. Matthew's Cathedral, and will then hold a Mass on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Photo by Alex Wong/WHITE HOUSE POOL (ISP POOL IMAGES)/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Pope Francis gestures to his watch to apologize for not being able to greet everyone at the end of a midday prayer with US bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, DC, on September 23, 2015 on the second day of his six-day visit to the US. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
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)
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 matle blown by the wind covers his face as he leads the weekly general audience at St Peter's square on August 27, 2014 in Vatican City. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Pope Francis reacts during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 27, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pope Francis adjusts his mantle blown by a gust of wind as he leads the weekly audience is Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Tony Gentile TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pope Francis smiles onboard the papal plane during his return to Rome, from Asuncion, Paraguay July 12, 2015. Pope Francis left for Rome on Sunday at the end of a trip to South America during which he censured capitalism, championed the rights of the poor, warned of irreversible damage to the planet and urged youths to "make a mess". Picture taken July 12, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pope Francis reacts as he is greeted by cloistered nuns at the Duomo during his pastoral visit in Naples March 21, 2015 REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A gust of wind blows Pope Francis's skull cap off during his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican May 20, 2015. REUTERS/Tony Gentile TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Pope Francis gestures during a meeting with Asian youths at the Solmoe Shrine in Dangjin August 15, 2014. The pope began his five-day trip to South Korea on Thursday. The main purpose of the trip is to preside at the gathering of Asian Catholic youth and beatify 124 people killed for their faith in the 18th century. REUTERS/Ahn Young-joon/Pool (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: RELIGION PROFILE POLITICS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
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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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