(CNN) -- The Archbishop of Naples barely disguised his disgust: "Indifference is not an emotion for human beings." Cardinal Crecenzio Seppe wrote in his parish Web site blog Sunday that "to turn the other way or to mind your own business can sometimes be more devastating than the events that occur."
The Italian government has been accused of racial discrimination towards the country's Gypsy minority.
On a windy Saturday afternoon a group of Roma girls were selling trinkets on a beach outside of Naples. Sometime during lunch time, the girls set down their wares and ventured into a rough sea. Two of the Roma, cousins Violetta and Cristina, aged 12 and 13, according to Cardinal Sepe, struggled to stay afloat amid a strong rip tide.
Emergency services responded 10 minutes after a distress call was made from the beach and, according to local press accounts, two lifeguards attended the girls upon hearing their screams. But they were too late. Cristina and Violetta drowned.
Their bodies were pulled from the sea, covered with towels, feet exposed. Witnesses say they lay on the beach for hours -- and so did many of the sunbathers who allegedly watched the drowning and, according to some press accounts, did little but stare and carry on with their Saturday afternoon.
"Two Gypsy [Roma] girls drown in the midst of the indifference of bathers," shouted the headline of La Repubblica. "Children drown, their bodies amidst the bathers," read Corriere della Sera's first page. "Few left the beach or abandoned their sunbathing."
The coffins of the girls, carried on the shoulders of police, exited the beach "between bathers stretched out in the sun," it reported. It also pointed out that the drowning of an Italian man off the coast of northern Italy in 1997, prompted a similar reaction.
Pictures of bathers chatting on cellphones and taking in the rays just meters from the lifeless bodies were posted on dailies across Italy on Sunday. The photographer told CNN the atmosphere among the sunbathers was indeed indifferent -- but "what were they supposed to do?" he asked.
The girls were from one of the many Roma camps in Naples, part of a population of nearly 150,000 across Italy mainly in and around Naples, Rome and Milan. The group have long been considered a nuisance by many in Italy and frequently blamed for criminal activity.
In a recent government survey, nearly a quarter of Italians said they believed the Roma were thieves. More than 90 percent said the believed they exploit their children.
Under a new, controversial anti-crime measure, every Roma, including their children will be registered in a census and either photographed or fingerprinted -- a move condemned by the European parliament, the U.N., the Catholic Church and civil liberties groups as racial profiling.
The Berlusconi government says the initiative will help keep track of the group and better protect the rights of its children who under Italian law are entitled to free health care and education if they are documented.
Authorities who attended to the Roma girls at the beach last weekend said they did not have any identification and were not on any local records. Police left the girls' bodies on the beach until they had located their families.