ROME (Reuters) - Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 prison inmates, including two Muslims and a Buddhist, in a Holy Thursday ritual and said the death penalty should be abolished because it is neither Christian nor humane.
For the sixth year running, the pope held the ritual in an institution rather than in the splendours of the Vatican or a Rome basilica, as his predecessors did. Conservatives have criticised him for including women and non-Christians in the rite in the past.
He visited Rome’s Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) jail in the centre of city, to perform the rite recalling Jesus’ gesture of humility towards his 12 apostles on the night before he died.
The 12 male inmates were from Italy, the Philippines, Morocco, Moldavia, Colombia and Sierra Leone. Eight were Catholic, two were Muslim, one was an Orthodox Christian and one a Buddhist.
Francis wove the sermon of a Mass around the theme of service, saying many wars could have been avoided in history if more leaders had considered themselves servants of the people rather than commanders.
He spoke of the death penalty just before leaving the prison, a former 17th century Catholic convent that was transformed into a jail 1881.
“A punishment that is not open to hope is not Christian and not humane,” he said in response to closing comments by the prison director, a woman.
“Each punishment has to be open to the horizon of hope and so the death penalty is neither Christian nor humane,” he said.
Since his election in 2013, Francis has several times called for an worldwide ban on capital punishment, prompting criticism from Church conservatives, particularly in the United States.
The 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church allowed the death penalty in extreme cases for centuries, but the position began to change under the late Pope John Paul, who died in 2005.
Francis has asked that the Church’s new position on the death penalty be better reflected in its universal catechism.
On Good Friday, Francis is due to lead a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession at Rome’s Colosseum. On Saturday night he leads a Easter vigil service and on Easter Sunday he delivers his twice-yearly “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) message.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Heavens