ROME — In the wake of a massive underwater volcanic eruption in Tonga, subsequent tsunamis and now contamination from volcanic ash and saltwater, Pope Francis has appealed for prayers for the people of the region.

“My thoughts go to the people of the islands of Tonga, struck in recent days by the eruption of the underwater volcano, which caused enormous material damage. I am spiritually close to all the people suffering, imploring God for the relief of their suffering,” the pope said at the end of his general audience talk in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall Jan. 19.

“I invite everyone to join me in praying for these brothers and sisters,” he said.

The massive eruption Jan. 15 triggered a series of tsunamis that inundated coastal communities, destroying homes, contaminating water supplies and cutting off power and communications. Mounds of ash, which continued to fall from the volcano days after the blast, were also contaminating water sources and hampering efforts to bring in outside aid and rescue teams. However, there are concerns that bringing in aid from outside the region and distributing relief might spread the virus that causes COVID-19: Tonga recorded its first case in October.

At least three people have been reported dead in the Tonga region and two in Peru from tsunamis triggered by the eruption.

Meanwhile, Caritas Australia appealed for funds for Tonga, which was covered in a thick blanket of ash. The ash was preventing airplanes from landing to bring in needed aid.

It said coastal communities in Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu were also impacted by tsunami waves, along with communities in Australia, Japan and the Americas.

The Polynesian nation’s one and only undersea communications cable was badly damaged, and it may take days or weeks to repair. Roads, bridges and homes along the coast were also damaged by the waves.

More than 104,000 people live in Tonga, and the government has appealed for immediate assistance.