Around fifty families, mostly migrants from North Africa and eastern Europe, have been occupying the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore for two weeks, ever since they were evicted from a squat on the outskirts of Rome.
The group have asked for asylum from the Vatican, telling Francis in a letter: “We ask that you make yours the wounds that we carry, that you grant us as human beings who have been persecuted, harassed and humiliated by the Italian state, political asylum.”
The pontiff often goes to the church to pray before major endeavours such as his trips to the Holy Land and Brazil, but on Thursday was visiting as part of the annual Corpus Christi celebrations.
The Vatican said beforehand that they were concerned that such a meeting might be "manipulated to put pressure on the Rome authorities", La Repubblica reported.
Pope Francis, who has called for the Catholic Church to be "the first port of call" for migrants fleeing war and hardship, visited the Basilica on Thursday for the religious event, but did not speak to the migrants.
Before the ceremony Vatican Gendarmerie herded the group out to the car park, carrying all their possessions, and were forbidden from re-entering before the end.
One the eve of International Refugee Day, one of the women, identified as ‘Magdalina’, told La Repubblica the migrants were “shocked” at their treatment.
She said : “We were counting on being able to meet Pope Francis. We asked him to hear us out, even just for a few minutes.
“But they told us that we could not meet him and must go away from the church. They told us that if he met us it would be a political gesture."
Francis was their “last chance of salvation”, she said.
The group have been told they must leave the Basilica for good by Saturday. The City of Rome has offered the group separate accommodation for men and women with children but the families want to stay together.
A number of them have reluctantly accepted an offer to move temporarily to a former exhibition centre in Rome.