- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

L’AQUILA, ITALY (AP) - Sobbing mourners gazed at coffins adorned with mementos of the dead _ a toy motorcycle, a baby’s T-shirt _ as they bade farewell Friday to some 200 of Italy’s quake victims at an open-air funeral Mass.

Pope Benedict XVI urged survivors to keep up hope in a message delivered on his behalf at the special Good Friday Mass.

The 6.3-magnitude quake _ Italy’s worst in three decades, which killed 289 people and left nearly 40,000 homeless _ struck Monday at the start of Holy Week, heightening the suffering in this deeply Roman Catholic country.

“This is the time to work together,” the pope said in a message read by his secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein. “Only solidarity will allow us to overcome this painful trial.”

Mourners in the front row bowed their heads, their shoulders shaking as they wept. A few ran their fingers on the caskets neatly lined up on the vast military ground in the quake-stricken city of L’Aquila. Others stared blankly at the sea of flowers.

Firefighters, rangers and other rescue workers stood solemnly, their hands clasped in front of them. At least 10 mourners fainted during the ceremony, according to a doctor at the scene.

Amid the rows of coffins, five small white caskets of the youngest victims rested on those of their parents. On them rested mementos of short lives: a boy’s toy motorcycle and a baby’s powder blue T-shirt with a Tweetie Bird design.

Twenty children and teenagers were among the dead. The youngest victim would have turned 5 months on Easter Sunday.

The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, presided over the Good Friday funeral Mass for about 200 of the dead. Some of the 289 victims had already been buried privately. Two bodies were found in the rubble as officials prepared for the funeral.

Speaking of the Easter Sunday celebration, Bertone told the mourners: “It will be your Easter, an Easter which will be born once again from the rubble of a people who have suffered so many times in its history.”

An imam briefly took the stage to address the relatives of an unknown number of Muslim victims. He also offered encouragement to all the mourners, who quietly applauded when he finished speaking.

After the service ended, uniformed police officers and rescue workers, some in bright orange uniforms, slowly carried the wooden caskets from the military ground and loaded them into long, silver hearses.

Many of the caskets were brought to a cement building inside L’Aquila’s main cemetery. They were expected to remain there for about a month, pending registration of the dead _ and because the ground is still unstable, police and Red Cross officials said.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi and other government officials were among the 10,000 people at the outdoor ceremony beneath Abruzzo’s snowcapped mountains. The funeral was being held outdoors because none of the region’s churches was stable enough for the ceremony.

Berlusconi _ who has won praise for his compassionate handling of the crisis _ comforted mourners, shaking hands and giving hugs. Berlusconi told one young mourner kneeling before a relative’s casket to “keep your chin up,” according to the news agency ANSA.

“How can one not be moved by so much pain?” Berlusconi said, shortly before departing for L’Aquila for the funeral.

In a news conference later from Rome, Berlusconi announced the arrest of four Romanians on suspicion of looting and said officials were trying to arrange their immediate trial, possibly as soon as Friday evening, in L’Aquila barracks.

Despite few reports of looting, Berlusconi has pledged a crackdown on the crime in the aftermath of the quake.

“I promised before the caskets of their loved ones: The government takes it upon itself to help those who have been hit by this,” Berlusconi said.

The billionaire former media mogul told reporters after the funeral that he would offer earthquake victims a place to stay at one of his homes. Berlusconi and his family have villas along Sardinia’s luxurious seaside and in Milan’s suburbs.

Friday was declared a national day of mourning and many shops across the country were closed during the service.

Volunteers guided grieving relatives to the caskets of their loved ones. Each of the simple varnished wooden coffins, graced with either a cross or a crucifix and with a bouquet of flowers, bore a golden plaque with the name of the deceased, the dates of birth and death.

A woman mourned at a casket draped in soccer jerseys and holding the silver-framed photo of a smiling young man with thick blond hair.

The Vatican granted a special dispensation for the Mass. Good Friday, which marks Jesus’ death by crucifixion, is the only day in the year on which Mass in not normally celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church.

Benedict, who noted that the quake was felt at the Vatican, plans to travel to the region sometime after the Easter holiday.

“Today is a ‘Via Crucis’ for each of us,” said Stefania Pezzopane, one of the top officials of this medieval city in central Italy. The “Via Crucis,” or “Way of the Cross,” is the procession held on Good Friday in commemoration of Jesus’ suffering before crucifixion.

The quake struck Monday at 3:32 a.m., while many slept. It reduced entire city blocks to piles of rubble. L’Aquila was among the hardest hit cities, but the quake damaged 26 towns in the central mountainous region of Abruzzo.

On Thursday, L’Aquila took a halting step toward normalcy as butchers, bakers and other shopkeepers reopened for business and firefighters began entering buildings to grab essential items for the homeless.

Aftershocks, some of them strong, continued to rattle residents, more than 24,000 of whom are living in tent camps around the region. An additional 15,000 have been put up in seaside hotels out of the quake zone, and the Italian railway provided heated sleeping cars at L’Aquila’s main train station for about 700.

Firefighters surveyed for damage as far away as Rome, 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of the quake’s epicenter.

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