Pope says Italy immigrant tensions a 'social emergency'

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis on Sunday described violent attacks on refugees in Rome as symptomatic of a "social emergency" that will only get worse if it is not addressed.

Addressing the crowds in St Peter's Square after his weekly Angelus sermon, the pontiff urged authorities and church officials to work to calm tensions after several days of mob attacks on a holding centre for asylum speakers in a rundown neighbourhood of the Italian capital.

"In recent days in Rome there have been quite strong tensions between residents and immigrants," the pontiff said, in a reference to the unrest in the Tor Sapienza district.

"These are things that can happen in different European cities, particularly in peripheral neighbourhoods already suffering from other problems.

"I call on the authorities, at every level, to address what now constitutes a social emergency which, if not dealt with soon in an adequate manner, risks degenerating further.

"The Christian community needs to get involved in a concrete manner to ensure we have a coming together not clashes.

"Citizens and immigrants can meet, even in parish rooms, to speak about the situation.

"It is possible to have dialogue, listen to each other and plan together, and in this way overcome suspicion and prejudice and build safe, peaceful and inclusive co-existence."

That looks unlikely in the short-term in Tor Sapienza, which was last week the scene of some of the worst scenes of anti-immigrant violence witnessed in Europe for years.

A building housing around 50 migrants was pelted with stones, flares and other missiles for three consecutive nights.

Windows were smashed, rubbish bins set ablaze and there were pitched battles with riot police that became sufficiently serious for the city authorities to order the removal of teenagers from the centre.

There was also some evidence of the local protest being hijacked by far right groups with references to "Il Duce" - as Italy's former dictator Benito Mussolini styled himself -- featuring alongside overtly racist and anti-Islamic chants and banners.

Rome's mayor has insisted that the asylum seekers will not be removed from the centre, as local residents are demanding, arguing that an influx of non-Italians has brought problems of crime and prostitution.