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Pope washes feet of refugees, saying 'We are brothers'

Pope Francis holds the Gospel book as he leads a Chrism Mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican (AP)
Pope Francis holds the Gospel book as he leads a Chrism Mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican (AP)

Pope Francis has washed and kissed the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees, declaring them children of the same God, in a gesture of welcome and brotherhood following the Brussels attacks.

Francis denounced the carnage as a "gesture of war" carried out by people beholden to the weapons industry during an Easter Week Mass with asylum-seekers at the 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 centre.

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.

Francis was greeted with a banner reading "Welcome" in a variety of languages as he walked down a makeshift aisle to celebrate the outdoor 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 ritual, and past popes and many priests traditionally performed it on 12 Catholic men, recalling Jesus's 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 centre. After years of violating the rules outright, Francis in January changed the regulations to explicitly allow women and girls to participate.

The Vatican said on Thursday that four women and eight men took part. The women included an Italian Catholic who works at the centre 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" usually refers to baptised 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.

Pope Francis performs the foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016. Pope Francis washed the feet of 11 young asylum seekers and a worker at their reception centre to highlight the need for the international community to provide shelter to refugees. AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis performs the foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016. Pope Francis washed the feet of 11 young asylum seekers and a worker at their reception centre to highlight the need for the international community to provide shelter to refugees. AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis poses for a selfie with a refugee during his visit at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016. AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis is greeted by migrants during his visit at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center, some 30km (18, 6 miles) from Rome, Thursday, March 24, 2016. The pontiff washed and kissed the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees Thursday, declaring them children of the same God, in a gesture of welcome and brotherhood at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has spiked following the Brussels attacks. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)
Pope Francis is greeted by migrants during his visit at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center, some 30km (18, 6 miles) from Rome, Thursday, March 24, 2016. The pontiff washed and kissed the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees Thursday, declaring them children of the same God, in a gesture of welcome and brotherhood at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has spiked following the Brussels attacks. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)
Pope Francis washes the foot of a woman during the foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center, some 30km (18, 6 miles) from Rome, Thursday, March 24, 2016. The pontiff washed and kissed the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees Thursday, declaring them children of the same God, in a gesture of welcome and brotherhood at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has spiked following the Brussels attacks. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)
Pope Francis hugs a migrant during his visit at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center, some 30km (18, 6 miles) from Rome, Thursday, March 24, 2016. The pontiff washed and kissed the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees Thursday, declaring them children of the same God, in a gesture of welcome and brotherhood at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has spiked following the Brussels attacks. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)
Pope Francis meets migrants during his visit at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016.
Pope Francis touches the head of a migrant during his visit at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016.
Pope Francis washed the feet of 11 young asylum seekers and a worker at their reception centre to highlight the need for the international community to provide shelter to refugees.
Pope Francis washed the feet of 11 young asylum seekers and a worker at their reception centre to highlight the need for the international community to provide shelter to refugees.
Pope Francis washed the feet of 11 young asylum seekers and a worker at their reception centre to highlight the need for the international community to provide shelter to refugees.
Pope Francis washed the feet of 11 young asylum seekers and a worker at their reception centre to highlight the need for the international community to provide shelter to refugees. Several of the asylum seekers, one holding a baby in her arms, were reduced to tears as the 79-year-old pontiff kneeled before them, pouring water over their feet, drying them with a towel and bending to kiss them. AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016.
Pope Francis at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016.
Pope Francis at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016.
Pope Francis shakes hands with a man during the foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome on March 24, 2016. AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis arrives at the Cooperative Auxilium (C.A.R.A) of Castelnuovo di Porto near Rome where he will wash feet of migrants from the Center for Asylum seeker of Castelnuovo di Porto as part of the Holy Thursday celebrations on March 24, 2016. The ceremony evokes Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last supper before he was crucified. / AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLIALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis arrives at the Cooperative Auxilium (C.A.R.A) of Castelnuovo di Porto near Rome where he will wash feet of migrants from the Center for Asylum seeker of Castelnuovo di Porto as part of the Holy Thursday celebrations on March 24, 2016. The ceremony evokes Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last supper before he was crucified. / AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLIALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
Migrants arrive at the Cooperative Auxilium (C.A.R.A) of Castelnuovo di Porto near Rome where Pope Francis will wash the feet of twelve migrants from the Center for Asylum seeker of Castelnuovo di Porto as part of the Holy Thursday celebrations on March 24, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLIALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Francis seemed to define "people of God" as open-ended.

"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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