Pope Francis mourns death of 71 migrants who suffocated in abandoned truck

by Elise Harris.- In his Sunday Angelus address Pope Francis lamented the death of 71 migrants – mostly from war-torn Syria – whose bodies were found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian highway, offering prayers for the victims.

“Unfortunately in the past few days many migrants have lost their lives in their terrible journeys. For all of these brothers and sisters, I pray and invite you to pray,” the Pope said Aug. 30.

He spoke to the pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square, offering his closeness to the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Cristoph Schönborn – who was also present – as well as the entire Church in Austria.

“We entrust each of (the deceased) to the mercy of God; and we ask him to help us cooperate effectively to prevent these crimes, which offend the entire human family.”

On Thursday the bodies of the 71 migrants – most of whom refugees fleeing Syria – were found inside of an abandoned truck parked off Austria’s A4 near the Austrian village of Parndorf, close to the Hungarian border.

A roadside employee called police after he noticed that the truck had been sitting motionless on the shoulder for “awhile,” the Catholic Herald reports.

Since autopsies are still being done on the corpses, police say that it’s still too early to determine the exact cause of death.

However, authorities have noted that the truck’s cargo hold had no openings for ventilation on its sides, suggesting the migrants suffocated. Among the dead were 59 men, eight women and four children.

According to the Wall Street Journal, when found many of the corpses were so decomposed that officials say they likely had died up to two days earlier, before crossing into Western Europe.

Police noted that several cell phones had been recovered from the truck, and said they are being examined in order to determine if migrants had attempted to call for help, as well as identify victims through the phone’s details and contacts. Police are also trying to trace the victims’ relatives.

Although various toiletries and clothes were also recovered from the truck, so far no identity cards have been found apart from one Syrian travel document.

The incident marks the latest in Europe’s widespread migrant crisis, and points to the fact that many migrants from parts of the Middle East and North Africa ravaged by war are now heading from Turkey to Greece, then crossing the Balkans into Hungary, in a course believed to be less risky than the often deadly route across the Mediterranean.

The Wall Street Journal reports that four men have been arrested in relation to the incident, and that a Hungarian court on Saturday said they could face up to 16 years in prison for alleged trafficking in connection with the deaths.

Cardinal Schönborn said in an article published in the Catholic Herald Aug. 28 that he was “deeply shaken” by the deaths.

He said the “terrible deed” makes the plight of the increasing number of refugees clearer than ever.

In addition to expressing his horror at the “indescribable inhumanity” of the act, the cardinal said that “courageous decisions” need to be made in order to help those who find themselves in similar situations.

He called for Europe to be united and to use the law to bring those responsible to justice, and offered his sympathy to those who suffered the “unimaginably agonizing death” as well as their families.

The cardinal will preside over an Aug. 31 Memorial Service in St Stephen’s Cathedral for the victims of the disaster, as well as all refugees who have died.

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