By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Pope Francis is in Brazil to attend World Youth Day (WYD), and was greeted by tens of thousands of pilgrims in the center of Rio on Monday, July 22nd. Argentinian-born Pope Francis, who is the first Latin Pope, said God had wanted him to visit his “beloved” Latin America first and that he knew he had to “knock gently” at the doorway to Brazilians’ “immense hearts.”
A number of events conspired to make Brazil the first overseas destination of Francis’ papacy, among them mainly Benedict XVI’s resignation and the decision to move WYD by a year so as not to clash with the World Cup.
At the official welcoming at Rio’s Palácio Guanabara, both President Dilma Rousseff, and Pope Francis alluded to the importance of treating young people with respect amid calls for social improvements in Brazil.
Rousseff said she saw Pope Francis as a “religious leader sensitive to anxieties for social justice,” while Pope Francis drove home his belief that the young had to be encouraged, not isolated, and urged they be given “safety,” “education” and “last values.”
In keeping with Pope Francis’ fondness for humility and closeness to people of all types, particularly the poor and the afflicted, his schedule will include a visit to a Rio favela community, as well as talking to prisoners and drug addicts at a treatment center he is set to inaugurate.
Carioca, Juliane Albuquerque, who is hosting pilgrims and volunteering for WYD 2013, says she is “immensely happy” to see Pope Francis in Rio, whom she views as “so charismatic” and capable of bringing “much peace and happiness.”
“The Pope’s visit is very positive for Brazil and will spark faith, love and caring in everyone’s heart, not just Catholics’,” Albuquerque tells The Rio Times. “His spiritual force brings a lot of good to Brazil and Brazilians, particularly during this time of protests concerning social injustice. His voice allows us to reflect better on these events.”
The Pope and the Brazilian Catholic Church have voiced support for the protests as a way of shining light on the social inequalities and extreme poverty in Brazil.
Rio’s authorities had been ready for the visit to reignite demonstrations, given the current climate of protests and the controversial nature of any Pope, even if he is admired by most Brazilians.
Some protests began before the Pope even landed in Brazil – led by people opposed to the visit’s cost and the Church’s stance on a number of issues, including LGBT and women’s rights.
However, the peaceful atmosphere to Monday’s protests quickly soured and the demonstrations, focused both on the Pope and local political leaders – governor Sérgio Cabral and mayor Eduardo Paes – turned even more violent than those seen in June.
Rio’s Public Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame defended the police response, saying they were attempting to handle the protests without “being evasive nor abusing authority,” but others said police retained a “deep-seated culture of confrontation” and viewed protesters as “enemies.”
Rio-based human rights activist Rafucko, at the protest, told The Rio Times that some of those taking part – a “range of people from anarchists and feminists, to religious and atheists” – were arrested indiscriminately and without foundation.
“I’m opposed not to the Pope’s visit, but the public money spent on it. The government seems more preoccupied with pleasing the Church than the Brazilian people. Religious politicians are increasingly interfering in Brazil’s politics. It’s the perfect time to speak out.”
Both planned and spontaneous protests are likely to continue, with media interest from around the world growing to see whether the wave of mass protests returns to Brazil as next year’s World Cup looms on the horizon.
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