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Pope Francis apologizes to Waldensian community

The pope has asked for forgiveness on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church for its historic treatment of a group of Protestants who sprang up in northern Italy. The Waldensian Church still has some 45,000 followers.

Pope Francis made the plea for forgiveness on the first ever visit by a pontiff to a Waldensian temple, declaring the persecution of the minority as "un-Christian."

The Waldensian Church has some 45,000 members - the majority in Italy's northern Piedmont region, with some 15,000 living in Latin America.

Speaking on Monday, the second day of his visit to Piedmont, Francis said he could not fail to feel sad about the "disputes and violence committed in the name of one's faith."

"On behalf of the Catholic Church, I ask for your forgiveness," he said. "I ask for your forgiveness for the un-Christian, even inhuman attitude and behavior we had against you. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us."

'Crossing a wall'

The pope's speech was greeted with warm applause with the temple's pastor, Eugenio Bernardini, thanking Francis for "crossing a wall erected eight centuries ago, when our church was accused of heresy and excommunicated."

The small movement was founded in the 12th century by Peter Waldo, a wealthy businessman from Lyon, France. Waldo preached simplicity and railed against the material excesses of the powerful Catholic Church. As the movement grew it came into increasing conflict with the Vatican, and Waldo was excommunicated.

The Waldensians were formally declared to be heretics by Pope Lucius III in 1184, and again by Pope Innocent III in 1215. In 1211, more than 80 Waldensians were burned as heretics in Strasbourg, marking the start of centuries of persecution.

Francis, an Argentine Jesuit who was born to Piedmontese parents in Argentina, where a large part of Latin America's Waldensian community lives.

rc/ng (AP, dpa, Reuters)