ROME Pope Francis spoke out against mafia organizations exploiting and enslaving people, calling on mafiosi on Sunday to repent in words that recalled an impassioned plea by Pope John Paul II 20 years ago.
Speaking off the cuff after his weekly Angelus blessing in St. Peter's Square, Francis spoke about the mafia for the first time since he became pontiff two months ago.
High profile killings by the Italian mafia have declined since the 1990s, but through activities such as prostitution, extortion and drug trafficking they still wield a heavy influence over the country and its economy.
Italy's main crime groups - the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta and the Camorra from around the southern city of Naples - have a joint annual turnover of 116 billion euros ($150 billion), according to the United Nations.
That is more than the annual sales of Italy's biggest company, oil giant Eni.
Francis recalled the example of the Sicilian anti-mafia priest Giuseppe Puglisi, who was killed by gunmen in 1993 outside his home in the island's capital of Palermo, and was beatified on Saturday .
"My thoughts are with the suffering of women, men and also children who are exploited by the many mafias who make them slaves, through prostitution, through many social pressures," he said.
"They cannot do this, they cannot make our brothers slaves, we must pray to the Lord to make these mafiosi convert to God."
In one of his most famous addresses in Agrigento, Sicily, in May 1993, John Paul angrily called on mafiosi to "repent, because one day you will face the judgment of God".
Earlier, Francis made his first visit to a Rome parish when he said Mass outside a church in the northern fringe of the city, joking with local children during the service.
"You can understand reality better from the outskirts than the center," he said in front of the modern, red brick church of Saints Elisabeth and Zachariah, a far cry from the vast 16th century Basilica of St. Peters in the Vatican.
During the service the pope, who is bishop of Rome, held a light-hearted question and answer session with children about the roles of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
"Whoever gets it right will win the derby," he said, in a reference to the Italian soccer cup final to be played later between Rome's two rival teams, AS Roma and Lazio. ($1 = 0.7734 euros)
(Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Alison Williams)