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Pope faces charged issues on home continent

Astrid Prange / js
July 4, 2015

The itinerary appears innocuous - on his trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, Pope Francis will meet three heads of state and millions of faithful. But politically, the trip to his home continent is highly charged.

Papst Franziskus Generalaudienz
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Pizzoli

"There will be a lot of surprises," as Guzmán Carriquiry Lecour, acting chairman of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, told the Ecuadorian newspaper "La Hora." The pope, he said, has intentionally chosen three Latin American countries that are not among the continent's largest.

"Thirty years ago, most of the masses in Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay were poor. Since then, many indigenous people and farmers have freed themselves from that misery. They have become a new class of citizens," explains Lecour, who is accompanying the pope. "And the pope wants to talk to them."

There is certainly enough to talk about. For the last several weeks thousands of people have been protesting against Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, throughout the country and in the capitol Quito, where the pope will arrive on Sunday evening to begin his trip. In Bolivia, the relationship between the church and the government has been strained for years, while in Paraguay, the case of the rape of a ten-year-old girl and the resulting pregnancy has shocked the nation.

Ecuador Protest gegen Regierung
The people of Ecuador have staged mass protests against their leaderImage: Reuters/G. Granja

Peaceful intermission for the pope

Not only are millions of faithful hoping for diplomatic and spiritual miracles from the Vatican, politicians are too. And there is reason for hope: In Ecuador, President Correa has already declared that he will rescind his planned tax increase for the moment. He has also said that he will attend church services in Quito with the pope on July 7, something that had been uncertain for fear of massive protests.

In Bolivia, President Morales has also announced that several ongoing conflicts, including those with the Catholic Church, will be put on ice for the duration of Francis' visit. On July 8, in La Paz, a long-held dream will be fulfilled for the former head of the coca growers' union, when Pope Francis will try Bolivian coca leaves on camera.

Some 20,000 tiny bags, filled with tea and coca leaves, will be handed out along the route between La Paz airport and the city's main cathedral. There's no better advertisement for Bolivia's national product - which was recognized by the UN as a cultural heritage product 2013 - than the papal blessing.

"Can anyone imagine that this pope won't be political?" asks Reiner Wilhelm of the Catholic aid organization Adveniat. He also predicted that Francis will not miss the opportunity to speak with people who feel abandoned by their governments.

Taboo topic

In Paraguay, there may be a meeting with the relatives of victims of the 2009 disaster in which more than 400 people lost their lives in a fire at a shopping mall in Asunción. It emerged later that escape doors had been locked for fear of looting and people leaving without paying for goods.

The case of Mainumby, a ten-year-old girl now seven months pregnant after being repeatedly raped, will likely give rise to uncomfortable questions. Human rights organizations are mobilizing against the sexual abuse of minors in Paraguay, and are rattling a traditionally taboo subject in the staunchly Catholic country - abortion.

Italien Boliviens Präsident Evo Morales in Mailand
Bolivia's Evo Morales has said that conflicts with the Church will be put on ice for the pope's visitImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Lo Scalzo

Columnist and papal expert Juan Arias thinks it possible that Francis may even broach the subject himself. "The pope recently told a group of faithful at St. Peter's Square that priests should have compassion for the immense pain of women who decide to terminate a pregnancy," he wrote in the Spanish daily "El Pais."

Madonna of the poor

Millions of faithful will flock to take part in the concluding mass of the trip, to be held in Paraguay on July 12, which will include many from neighboring Argentina who want to see "their pope." Many of the pilgrims from Argentina are also Paraguayans who eke out an existence in the neighboring country as migrant workers.

More than 550,000 Paraguayan expatriates live in Argentina, most in the poorest areas of the big cities. Eighteen years ago, Francis gave a statue of "Our Lady of Caacupé," the patron saint of Paraguay, to the residents of "Villa 21" on the outskirts of Buenos Aires as a present.

The wishes and hurried prayers offered up to the patron saint are not only pious, they are political, like the pope's entire journey. "Of course, behind it all is always the big question, what does the Madonna stand for?" says Wilhelm. Then he offers his answer: "She stands for an oppressed people, constantly exploited by its neighbors."