Huge crowds in Brazil welcome pope back to home continent

Tue Jul 23, 2013 3:35am EDT
 
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By Paulo Prada and Philip Pullella

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Pope Francis arrived in Brazil on Monday on his first foreign trip as pontiff and was swarmed by well-wishers as he drove into Rio de Janeiro, where more than one million people are expected to gather to see the first Latin American to head the Roman Catholic Church.

Welcomed by a committee of local dignitaries, including President Dilma Rousseff, a smiling Francis waved to onlookers before proceeding by motorcade to Rio's city center at the start of a week-long gathering of young faithful in Brazil, home to the world's largest Catholic population.

Thousands of local Catholics, visiting pilgrims and curious Brazilians lined avenues to greet Francis, who rode at first in a closed car with his window open. The crush of well-wishers led to a lapse in security when crowds swarmed the car as it entered central Rio.

People surrounded the vehicle, a small silver Fiat, to take photos and touch the pontiff through his open window. Bodyguards moved in to push back the crowd, which at one point was so heavy that the car was forced to a halt.

The pope's visit to the Atlantic coastal metropolis is part of the biennial World Youth Day gathering. "God wished that the first international trip of my pontificate should take me back to my beloved Latin America," said Francis, an Argentine, in a speech shortly after arriving.

Despite the novelty of a new pope, the visit comes as secular interests, other faiths and distaste for the sexual and financial scandals that have roiled the Vatican in recent years caused many Catholics in Latin America and around the world to leave the Church.

The trip also comes amid growing economic and social dissatisfaction in Brazil, home to more than 120 million Catholics. The unease in June led to the biggest mass protests in the country in two decades, as more than 1 million people in hundreds of cities rallied against everything from rising prices to corruption to poor public services.

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Pope Francis greets the crowd of faithful from his popemobile in downtown Rio de Janeiro, July 22, 2013. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino