A Vatican cardinal urged Catholics Sunday to exercise a "preferential option for the poor" for seafarers serving on the front line of the coronavirus crisis. 

In a July 12 message marking Sea Sunday, Cardinal Peter Turkson described how the pandemic had left hundreds of thousands of maritime workers stranded and even driven some to suicide. 

"The celebration of Sea Sunday, especially by Christians, should invite us all to exercising a 'preferential option for the poor' seafarers, a pledge to live in solidarity with them," he wrote. 

Sea Sunday is usually observed worldwide on the second Sunday of July, but some regions will celebrate it at a later date because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Shortly after the message was released, Pope Francis referred to Sea Sunday following his Angelus address. 

"I extend warm greetings to all those who work on the sea, especially to those who are far from their loved ones and their country," he said July 12.

His remarks followed a video message last month in which he told maritime workers that their many sacrifices during the pandemic had not gone unnoticed.

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In his message, Turkson noted that this October marks the centenary of the charity Stella Maris, or Apostleship of the Sea, which supports seafarers across the world. The pandemic has forced the postponement to 2021 of centenary celebrations due to take place this fall in Glasgow, Scotland, the organization's birthplace.

The prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development said that while the virus had prompted entire countries to lockdown, seafarers were obliged to keep working despite the risk of contracting the coronavirus. 

"The maritime industry continued its operation, adding a multitude of challenges to the already problematic lives of the seafarers, and putting them on the front line in fighting against the coronavirus," he wrote.

"Vessels that are transporting almost 90% of products that are badly needed to carry on our normal lives in these taxing circumstances such as medication and medical equipment, remain at seas."

Turkson said that, "despite the fundamental role that seafarers play for the global economy," lawmakers and governments had failed to address their needs during the crisis.  

"In this unprecedented situation crew members, who had already spent between six to 10 months on board, had to suffer the great inconvenience of having their employment period extended, with the consequent increase of personal fatigue and prolonged absence from loved ones and the comfort of homes," he wrote.

"Estimates suggest that, every month, 100,000 seafarers who finish their contracts and look forward to flying home were prevented from doing so by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent closure of borders and flights."

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The Ghanaian cardinal continued: "Accordingly, thousands of seafarers who were ready to leave for a new contract were stranded in hotels and dormitories around the globe, reduced to beggarly dependence on charitable institutions for their basic needs such as foods, toiletries, sim cards, etc."

"Because of the absence of shore leave, and restricted port entry for ships visiting, seafarers on board the vessels suffer isolation, severe physical and mental stress that brings many crews on the verge of desperation and, unfortunately, committing suicide." 

"We have reports of many seafarers with serious and potentially life-threatening medical conditions which are unrelated to COVID-19. These still need emergency medical care in land-based national hospitals, which unfortunately were denied them or delayed until they had to be carried on stretchers."

Even when workers reached their homelands, they had to undergo quarantine or face "discrimination or stigmatization" because they were seen as bears of the coronavirus, the cardinal said. 

He argued that seafarers were also suffering because "some unscrupulous shipowners, crewing agencies and managers" were using the virus as an excuse to ignore workers' rights, including access to a proper wage and safe conditions.

He also noted that in the first three months of 2020 piracy attacks and attempted assaults on vessels had increased by 24%. 

"To all of the experiences above of the seafarers, which describe a dangerous form of livelihood, we must now consider the real threat of losing even this precarious livelihood, because it will mean for many the total loss of income and inability to assume social and domestic responsibilities, such as, payment of utilities bills, education of dependents, welfare of family," he said.

Turkson recalled a personal message sent to seafarers by Kitack Lim, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In the April 20 message, Lim told workers: "I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not forgotten."

The cardinal said: "You are not forgotten: the Stella Maris chaplains and volunteers will be with you in the next months when your resilience will be put to test and we will try to respond to your material and spiritual needs. We will be always at your side, raising your concerns, upholding your labor and human rights, and preventing discrimination."

The cardinal's message was accompanied by a prayer composed by the Dicastery and inspired by the message for Sea Sunday 2020. 

It read: "Holy Virgin Mary, sign of the maternal face of God, with filial confidence we turn to you in the current pandemic. Keep in your Immaculate Heart the seafarers, the fishermen and their families, who with their work are ensuring the human family with food and other basic needs."

"Sign of the closeness of the Father, support them in their trials and protect them from all dangers: isolation and severe physical and mental stress, long periods spent on board ships, distance from their family, friends and from their own country, fear of contamination, piracy attacks and attempted attacks, armed robberies." 

"Sign of the mercy of the Son, help Stella Maris chaplains and volunteers to listen to the people of the sea, trying to respond to their material and spiritual needs, standing by their side, raising their concerns, upholding their labor rights and preventing discrimination."
"Sign of the fruitfulness of the Spirit and advocate of seafarers, bring unscrupulous ship-owners, crewing agencies and managers back to the way of justice who, using the excuse of the pandemic, dismiss their obligations towards seafarers. Let us stand in solidarity with those who have lost their income." 

"Sign of consolation and sure hope, tenderly embraces coronavirus victims, especially the seafarers who committed suicide."

"Star of the Sea, pray for us. Amen!"