Pope Francis made a surprise visit to the site of a devastating earthquake in central Italy last week and prayed silently and alone amid the rubble.

The Pope later told the people of Amatrice, the hardest hit town, that he had wanted to visit sooner, but felt that visiting on August 24 earthquake would have complicated relief efforts and “would have been more of a hindrance than a help”.

With a megaphone he told the crowd: “From the first moment, I felt that I needed to come to you. Simply to express my closeness to you, nothing more. And I pray; I pray for you!”

The epicentre of the earthquake was close to Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict, and had a magnitude of 6.2. Amatrice accounted for 234 of the estimated 290 deaths.

Shortly after news of the quake, the Pope led 11,000 pilgrims in St Peter’s Square in praying the rosary for the victims. He also sent six Vatican firefighters and six Vatican police officers to Amatrice to help search for victims trapped under the rubble.

The Pope, accompanied by Bishop Domenico Pompili of Rieti, visited a newly built primary school in Amatrice and greeted pupils individually before making his way to the “red zone”, an area cordoned off due to safety concerns. He then visited a care home for the elderly.

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