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Pope spreads message of hope in Rio de Janeiro's slums

Pope Francis has addressed crowds in one of Rio de Janeiro's slums, attempting to uplift thousands of Brazil's poor. He talked of societal justice and the need for youths to continue hoping for brighter futures.

Pope Francis visited one of Rio e Janeiro's favelas, or slums, on Thursday, receiving a warm welcome from the crowds in Varghina, part of the city's extremely violent northern region. The Varginha shantytown is right near what was, until six months ago, Brazils largest "crackland," where people used crack cocaine openly.

During his visit to the slum, the pope addressed the crowds and met with people individually.

"No amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself," Francis said.

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He also made a point of addressing the younger generations and their sensitivity to injustice.

"You are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good," the pope said. "To you and all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change."

Very warm welcome

Crowds made their way through a muddy soccer field in the cold rain on Thursday to get a glimpse of the pontiff. Security was tight, but Pope Francis managed to wade through the crowds, hugging and kissing residents along the way. He stopped at a small local church and blessed the altar.

The pope also prayed before a replica of Brazil's patron saint, the Virgin of Aparecida, before meeting with a family in their tiny home.

"He gave each of us a rosary, he took photos with everyone and embraced each one," Diego Rodrigues, a 26-year-old friend of the da Penha family who received the papal visit, told the AP news agency. "I think everyone but the pope was speechless!"

Building the church

The pope's visit to Latin America aims to revitalize the eroding Catholic faith. Evangelical churches have been gaining ground in Brazil's poorer communities in recent decades, and the pope's trip is in part an effort to reverse this trend.

In visiting these poor areas of Brazil, Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, who visited Rio's favelas themselves in 1980 and 1972 respectively. Mother Teresa's charity order has continued to keep a presence in the shantytown since her visit.

Pope Francis has long sought to welcome the world's poor into the fold. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, for example, frequently preached in the poverty-wracked slums of his native city. He has promoted proactive outreach rather than waiting for marginalized members of society to make their way to the church.

Later on Thursday, the pope was expected to address crowds gathered at Copacabana Beach. There the pontiff will welcome participants of the World Youth Day. More than a million are expected to attend.

tm/dr (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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