Pope’s South American trip: defending the poor and the planet

VATICAN CITY, (Reuters) – Pope Francis sets out on Sunday to three of South America’s poorest and smallest countries, taking his message of solidarity with the downtrodden to prisoners, peasants, garbage pickers and indigenous people.

The July 5-13 trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay will be his first abroad since he made a clarion call for defence of the environment and the poor in his landmark encyclical “Laudato Si” last month.

It is also the Argentine pope’s first trip to Spanish-speaking South America – he made a trip to Brazil for a youth festival in 2013 to substitute for his predecessor Benedict after his sudden resignation. He is expected to improvise as he delivers some 25 speeches.

Because he chose the three countries himself, Vatican aides say this is the real “homecoming” to his native continent. He won’t visit his native Argentina until next year.

He will enter Bolivia’s notoriously violent Palmasola prison, a virtual city with its own rules. In Ecuador, he will comfort elderly patients in a hospice and visit sick children. In Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, he will enter one of the country’s poorest shantytowns, the flood-prone Banado Norte.

The health of the 78-year-old pope, who lost part of a lung to sickness when he was a young man, will be in the spotlight as he confronts possible altitude sickness during a quick stop in La Paz, Bolivia, which has the world’s highest international airport.

Just as he chose Albania as the first European country outside Italy to visit instead of Europe’s economic and political powerhouses, his choices this time again show his concern for people and nations on the margins.

“He wants to show that you can see issues clearer from the periphery instead of from the centre,” said an adviser close to the pope who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“He chose the countries in South America with the heaviest history of poverty, inequality and difficulties but which are now emerging peripheries with impressive rates of development and modernisation in recent years,” he said.

While he will make references to the encyclical, a papal letter addressed to people around the world, Vatican officials say Francis will most likely save any defence of it for his trip in September to the United States, the source of most of the criticism from conservatives.

In the encyclical Francis demanded swift action to save the planet from environmental ruin and urged world leaders to hear “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” who he said were most affected by climate change.

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