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Pope Francis Makes First Visit to Mafia Stronghold in Southern Italy

Image: Pope Francis, flanked by the president of CEI (Italian Episcopal Conference) Msgr Nunzio Galantino waves to the faithful as he arrives at the Cassano's Seminary on June 21 in Cassano allo Jonio Cosenza, Italy.

Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he arrives at the Cassano's Seminary on June 21 in Cassano all'Ionio in Calabria, Italy. Franco Origlia / Getty Images

Pope Francis made his first trip into a southern heartland of the Italian Mafia on Saturday, visiting a poverty-stricken town and comforting the detained father of a 3-year-old who was murdered in an alleged mob-related killing in January.

The pope’s first stop in the town of Cassano all'Ionio in the southern region of Calabria was the “Rosetta Sisca” penitentiary of Castrovillari, where he met with detainees, prison staff and their families.

"The Lord always forgives, always accompanies, always includes; let us understand it, let us forgive, let us accompany," the Pontiff told the inmates, according to the Vatican.

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Following a visit to a hospital for the terminally ill, the pontiff celebrated Holy Mass at Piana di Sibari, where he condemned the ‘Ndrangheta Mafia, which is centered in Cassano all'Ionio.

"Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated," Pope Francis said during the mass, according to Reuters.

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‘Ndrangheta is the most powerful Mafia in Italy and specializes in drug trafficking that often includes kidnappings, bombings, alien smuggling and murders, according to the FBI.

Carl Russo, the author of “Mafia Exposed,” told NBC News that the clan has more recently expanded its operations. “The ‛Ndrangheta has infiltrated Rome and northern Italy, and its reach extends into South America,” he said.

On Jan. 19, the charred remains of toddler Nicola “Coco” Campolongo, his grandfather and another man were found in a scorched car in Cassano all'Ionio. “All three were shot in the head and burned, allegedly a vendetta killing over a dispute the boy's mother had with the local clan (‘Ndrangheta),” Russo said.

Pope Francis had a "highly emotional" meeting with Coco's father, who is jailed on drug charges, according to the Vatican. "Never again should a child suffer so much.I always pray for him, don’t despair," Pope Francis told the toddler's father and family.

While Pope Francis has become well-known for his gentle side during the 15 months of his papacy, he is known to speak strongly against crime and abuses of money and power. On Friday, he also condemned the use of illegal drugs.

“Church officials have regularly warned against the Mafia and threatened them” but following Coco’s murder, “Pope Francis — gentle soul — told them they will go to hell if they don't repent,” said Father James M. Weiss, a professor of church history at Boston College.

“The pope's goal is surely to draw attention to the crimes and criminals, but what can he do concretely?" he added. "It's unclear.”

Coming on too strong could strike a dangerous chord in a region where the crime family plays up its links to the church.

‘Ndrangheta actually profess a Catholic faith in an effort to "exploit the bond between the church and large swaths of (Catholic) populations in southern Italy," Giuseppe Pignatone, a prosecutor who investigated Mafia cases in the region told the Wall Street Journal.

And some priests in the area have been investigated for 'Ndrangheta involvement, allowing the mafia affiliate to build churches and organize processions, the newspaper reported.

Weiss told NBC News that there also is speculation in some quarters "that Francis' reforms in the Vatican's finances are a threat to certain mafia interests,” implying there are mafia sympathizers in the Vatican and the Catholic Church.

Extreme rhetoric or actions against the mafia can be dangerous, even for men of the cloth. In 1993, Palermo Priest Pino Puglisi was assassinated for speaking against the organized crime, and the faithful worry that Pope Francis could be at risk during his short trip to Cassano Jonico.

“Is it dangerous for him? Yes, absolutely,” Weiss said.

But Francis isn’t worried. In a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, he dismissed concerns for his safety, while once again reiterating that he loathes riding in a bulletproof vehicle.

“It’s true that anything could happen, but let’s face it, at my age I don’t have much to lose,” he told La Vanguardia, according to Religion News Service.

“He is a security nightmare, frankly,” Weiss said. “But that ranks lower with him than loving contact with real people.”