ROME (Reuters) - Pope Francis, who has condemned human trafficking as a crime against humanity, on Friday made a surprise visit to a Rome safe house where a Catholic charity is protecting women freed from a life of forced prostitution.


The Vatican, which did not disclose the exact location of the house, said the pope met 20 women from Romania, Albania, Nigeria, Tunisia, Ukraine and Italy. He encouraged them to "be strong" as they start new lives, a Vatican official said.


The statement said the pope made the visit to the Pope John XXIII Community - started by an Italian priest to help free women from their pimps - in order to "appeal to consciences to fight human trafficking".


Under his papacy, the Vatican has hosted a series of conferences bringing together international police organizations, legislators and religious groups to find ways to work together to fight human trafficking and modern slavery.


Addressing one such group in 2014, he called trafficking an open wound for society and a crime against humanity.


Using the promise of a job, traffickers bring women to Italy and other Western European countries from Africa and Eastern Europe and then force them into prostitution.

Human rights groups estimate that millions of people around the world are victims of human trafficking and forms of modern slavery such as forced prostitution or unpaid manual labor.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Louise Ireland)