Vatican brushes off danger warnings as Francis prepares to travel to Mob heartland Calabria and hometown of toddler murdered in drug war
Pope Francis will spend day in hometown of toddler murdered in mob hit
Will also visit a prison, a hospital and a care home in Cassano allo Ionio
Calabria visit comes as Vatican is forced to deny claims Pope Francis is ill
He has abruptly suspended a large number of engagements until September
Pope Francis will travel to the mafia heartland of Calabria for the first time on Saturday to spend a day in the hometown of a toddler who was murdered in a clan drug war.
His tightly packed schedule in one of the poorest regions of Italy will see the pontiff visit a prison, hospital and care home in and around Cassano allo Ionio before celebrating mass with an expected 100,000 pilgrims.
The visit comes as the Vatican was forced to deny claims Francis is ill following an abrupt decision to cancel his popular morning Mass until September, and all general mid-week audiences in July.
During his visit to Calabria, the pope is expected to speak out about two of the region's biggest challenges: towering youth unemployment and the pervasive grip of the immensely powerful and secretive 'Ndrangheta crime group.
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The Argentine pope has previously denounced Italy's mafia organisations - which also include Sicily's Cosa Nostra and Stidda, Campania's Comorra and Puglia's Sacra Corona Unita - warning mobsters to relinquish their 'bloodstained money' which 'cannot be taken to heaven'.
Pope Francis will spend Saturday in the villages of Castrovillari and Cassano allo Jonio in Calabria - a region in southern Italy that is under the pervasive grip of the immensely powerful and secretive 'Ndrangheta mafia
After meeting relatives of mafia victims in May - including the families of butchered children and priests - he told gangsters that they would 'go to hell' if they did not repent.
When John Paul II voiced a similar threat in Sicily in 1993, Cosa Nostra responded by bombing two historic churches in Rome.
Francis's determination to rattle organised crime groups has sparked warnings that he himself could become a target for the mafia.
In November, respected Calabrian state prosecutor Nicola Gratteri said 'Ndrangheta was 'nervous'.
'If the mafia bosses can trip him up, they won't hesitate,' he said.
The Vatican brushed off the warning, insisting there was 'no reason for concern'.
Yesterday they also moved to ease renewed concerns about the pope's health, following his decision to suspend all midweek audiences to cancel his popular morning Mass until September, and all general mid-week audiences in July.
Reverend Thomas Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office, told CNN: 'There is no sickness whatsoever... If there was, we would be open about that and asking people to pray for him.'
The town of Cassano allo Ionio, nestled at the bottom of a steep mountain, was home to Nicola 'Coco' Campolongo, a three-year-old shot dead in January along with his grandfather.
The murders were apparent mafia assassinations over money.
The discovery of their bodies in a burnt-out Fiat Punto sent shockwaves through Italy, as did the murder just two months later of another three-year-old in the nearby Puglia region.
During his visit to Castrovillari prison, the 77-year-old pope will meet Coco's father, who was serving time in prison alongside the toddler's mother for drug crimes when their son was killed.
He may also meet the man who murdered priest Lazzaro Longobardi, who was beaten to death with an iron bar the same month after a failed extortion attempt.
The 'Ndrangheta plays a leading role in the global cocaine trade and its bastion, the Calabria region, is a major transit point for drug shipments from Latin America to the rest of Europe.
It has benefitted in the past from historic ties to the Church, with dons claiming to be God-fearing Catholics and priests turning a blind eye to crimes.
But over the past 20 years numerous priests have taken part in the fight against the clans - sometimes paying for their bravery with their lives.
Francis is likely to call on anti-mafia campaigners to continue their struggle, praising the work of organisations like Progetto Sud in Lamezia, which has transformed a gambling arcade and drug-trafficking base into a community for handicapped people.
He may also hail the courage of those who break ranks with the mob despite the clans' stringent code of loyalty, which punishes rebellion by death.
The 'Ndrangheta has been successful in combining elements of archaic tradition with modernity and has proved particularly difficult to infiltrate because of its reliance on a tightly knit network of families.
But a small but growing number of wives and daughters in particular are speaking out against their mobster fathers, brothers or sons.