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Pope Francis called for inter-religious tolerance as he performed Thursday the pre-Easter rite of the washing of the feet at a refugee centre outside Rome, casting it as a response to the recent terror attacks in Brussels.

The washing of the feet recalls the gesture that Christians believe Jesus to have performed on the twelve apostles before the Last Supper, to show that the man they saw as their leader was capable of the most humble act.

"Gestures speak louder than images and words," Francis said in a homily.

"We will all together be performing a gesture of brotherhood, and we will all be saying: we are different, we have different cultures and religions but we are brothers and we want to live in peace," the pontiff said before the feet washing.

He compared Tuesday's Islamist strikes in Brussels, which killed more than 30 people, to Judah's betrayal of Jesus, and said "arms traffickers who want blood and not peace, who want war and not brotherhood" were behind the massacres.

Three Muslim men, a Hindu from India, three Orthodox Coptic women from Eritrea, four Catholic men from Nigeria and an Italian female charity worker had their feet washed, dried and kissed by a kneeling pope during an open-air mass.

Francis - a well-known champion of migrants' rights - went to a refugee shelter in Castelnuovo di Porto, some 30 kilometers north of Rome. After mass, he greeted the facility's almost 900 residents one by one.

The founder of the Auxilium charity running the Castelnuovo di Porto shelter, Angelo Chiorazzo, told Vatican Radio that asylum seekers were initially incredulous that the leader of the Catholic Church was coming to visit them.

"One of [our] guys, a Muslim from Mali, told me: 'I really feel more important than [US President Barack] Obama! To have the Pope, the most important man in the world, the best man in the world, wash my feet!'," Chiorazzo said.

On Thursday morning, Francis began the Easter rites by celebrating Holy Chrism Mass with cardinals and bishops in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, during which he blessed holy oils used in the sacraments.

Previous popes used to wash the feet of cardinals at the Vatican, but Francis, who seeks to renew the Catholic Church's missionary spirit, broke with tradition within days of being elected in 2013, going to wash the feet of inmates of a juvenile prison.

At the time, his decision shocked Catholic conservatives, particularly for the inclusion of a woman in the ritual, as, according to tradition, foot washing was an all-male affair. Vatican rules on the issue were changed in January.

Francis previously also chose a juvenile prison, a centre for the disabled and a high security jail for the feet-washing ritual.

Easter, falling on Sunday, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and is the most important Christian holiday. In the run-up to it, Francis is scheduled to preside over the traditional Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession on Friday, and lead an Easter vigil on Saturday.

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