He encouraged them to resist what he called the great temptation to ‘respond to hatred with hatred and to violence with violence.’
The special audience in an auditorium at the Vatican included Christians, Muslims and Jews.
In a departure from how most group audiences with the pope are conducted, Francis spoke individually with each of the participants, some of them weeping or wiping away tears.
Daily Mail reports that some clutched photos of loved ones or asked if they could pose for a photo with the pope on behalf of someone who couldn’t attend the audience.
The pope, who this week denounced violence in the name of religion, declaring ‘there is no God of war’, met 180 people who were wounded or left traumatised or bereaved by the July 14 attack in Nice which claimed 86 lives.
‘It cheers me to see that, among you, inter-religious relations are very strong, and this cannot but help contribute to alleviating the wounds of these dramatic events,’ said the pontiff, who also offered compassion to those in attendance.
Nice’s former mayor, Christian Estrosi, gave the pope a basket of 86 flowers to symbolize the 86 victims of the attack by an extremist who barreled the truck he was driving through a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day in the French Riviera city.
Members of 58 families were flown in especially from Nice. They were joined in Rome by 150 others who travelled from France by car and a delegation from a French regional interreligious group, including the Catholic bishop of Nice and Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox and Protestant representatives.
‘When the temptation to turn inwards on oneself, or to respond to hatred with hatred and to violence with violence, is great, authentic conversion of the heart is needed,’ Francis said. He added: ‘You can respond to the assaults of the devil only with the works of God, which are forgiveness, love and respect for one’s neighbors, even if they are different.’
‘I pray to the God of mercy also for those who were wounded, in some cases atrociously mutilated, in flesh and in spirit, and I don’t forget all those who for that reason weren’t able to come here or are still in hospital,’ the pontiff said.
Vincent Delhommel Desmarest, who runs a restaurant on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice where the attack happened, said: ‘It was a moment of magical solace after what happened to us 73 days ago.
‘I don’t sleep at night. The whole scene of the lorry moving, the mutilated bodies, decapitated, the entrails.’
Mr Desmarest, 49, has been on sick leave ever since and now sees a psychologist three times a week.
Abdhallah Kebaier, who has to walk with a stick after being injured in the attack, said it was ‘comforting to be in the gathering as we had the feeling we’d been forgotten.
‘The attack resembled a war scene,’ he said. ‘I live only 400 metres (1,300 feet) away from the Promenade des Anglais but I never go there any more.’
Francis said political and religious leaders must make it their urgent priority to establish ‘sincere dialogue and fraternal relations among all, especially among all those who believe in a God who is one and merciful.’
French police on Tuesday arrested eight associates of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the 31-year-old Tunisian, who rammed the 19-tonne truck through the crowd of more than 30,000 people on the seafront in Nice before police shot him dead.
A total of 434 people were injured in the attack.