Pope to visit mafia heartland, hometown of slain toddler

Pope to visit mafia heartland, hometown of slain toddler
Pope Francis.

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis will travel for the first time Saturday to the mafia heartland of Calabria, to spend a day in the hometown of a toddler who was murdered in a clan drug war.

His tightly packed schedule in one of the poorest regions of Italy will see the pontiff visit a prison, hospital and care home in and around Cassano allo Jonio before celebrating mass with an expected 100,000 pilgrims.

The pope will likely speak out about two of the region's biggest challenges: towering youth unemployment and the pervasive grip of the powerful and secretive 'Ndrangheta crime group.

Unemployment among the under-25s in the region stands at 56.1 per cent - the highest in Italy in 2013 according to Eurostat - and local mobsters thrive by offering idle youngsters work, luring them into their networks.

The Argentine pope has denounced the mafia, warning mobsters to relinquish their "bloodstained money" which "cannot be taken to heaven".

After meeting relatives of mafia victims in May - including the families of butchered children and priests - he told gangsters that they would "go to hell" if they did not repent.

When John Paul II voiced a similar threat in Sicily in 1993 the Cosa Nostra mafia responded by bombing two historic churches in Rome.

Francis's determination to rattle organised crime groups has sparked warnings that he himself could become a target, with respected Calabrian state prosecutor Nicola Gratteri saying in November that the 'Ndrangheta was "nervous".

"If the mafia bosses can trip him up, they won't hesitate," he said. The Vatican brushed off the warning, insisting there was "no reason for concern".

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