Pope Francis arrived in Bolivia on Wednesday on the second leg of his South American tour and immediately insisted that the Catholic Church continue to play an important role in society amid efforts by the government of President Evo Morales to curb its influence. He later called for dialogue between Bolivia and Chile over their longtime border dispute.
Morales hugged the pope as he descended from the Boliviana de Aviacion plane and hung a pouch around his neck of woven of alpaca with indigenous trimmings. It is of the type commonly used to hold coca leaves, which are chewed by people in the Andes to alleviate altitude sickness. It wasn't known if Francis chewed any leaves, though he was served mate tea made with coca leaves, chamomile and annis on the plane from Quito, Ecuador.
La Paz stands at 4,000 meters (about 13,120 feet) above sea level, and the Vatican decided to keep the pope's stay to just four hours to limit any problems for the 78-year-old pontiff, who has only one full lung. Francis though seemed in fine form, bundled against the cold and wind by a white shawl that he donned for his popemobile ride into town past thousands of people who came to greet him, waving handkerchiefs and singing songs of welcome.
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At an airport welcome ceremony with Morales by his side, Francis praised Bolivia for taking "important steps" to include the poor and marginalized in the political and economic life of the country, South America's poorest.
Morales came to power championing Bolivia's 36 indigenous groups and enshrined their rights in the constitution, and under his leadership Bolivia's economy has boomed thanks to high prices for its natural gas and minerals. But Morales has roiled the local church by taking a series of anti-clerical initiatives, including a new constitution that made the overwhelmingly Catholic nation a secular country.
In his speech, Francis noted the Catholic faith took "deep root" in Bolivia centuries ago "and has continued to shed its light upon society, contributing to the development of the nation and shaping its culture."
"The voice of the bishops, which must be prophetic, speaks to society in the name of the church, our mother, from her preferential, evangelical option for the poor," he said.
Morales, for his part, recalled how the Catholic Church in the past was on the side of the oppressors of Bolivia's people, three-quarters of whom are of indigenous origin. But Morales, an Aymara Indian known for anti-imperialist and socialist stands, said things have changed with this pope and the Bolivian people are greeting Francis as someone who is "helping in the liberation of our people."
"He who betrays a poor person, betrays Pope Francis," Morales said.
He later gave Francis some politically loaded gifts. Chief among them: a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle, the Communist symbol uniting labor and peasants.
Another politically charged gift was a copy of "The Book of the Sea," which is about the loss of Bolivia's access to the sea during the War of the Pacific with Chile in 1879-83. Bolivia has taken its bid to renegotiate access to the Pacific to the International Court of Justice, arguing that its poverty is due in part to being land-locked. Chile has argued the court has no jurisdiction since Bolivia's borders were defined by a 1904 treaty.
Francis referred to the border dispute in a speech to civil authorities later in La Paz, calling for countries of the region to improve their diplomatic relations "in order to avoid conflicts between sister peoples and advance frank and open dialogue about their problems."
"I'm thinking about the sea, here," he said. "Dialogue is indispensable. Instead of raising walls, we need to be building bridges."
Francis denounced the constant "atmosphere of inequality" in Bolivia, where despite its economic advances in recent years nearly one in four Bolivians lives on $2 a day. And while prosperity has come to some with economic growth averaging 5 percent annually, it has "opened the door to the evil of corruption," Francis said.
Bolivia has a notoriously corrupt judiciary, with some 1,000 judges and 300 prosecutors under investigation or on trial for corruption.
Francis and Morales have met on several occasions, most recently in October when the president, a former coca farmer, participated in a Vatican summit of grassroots groups of indigenous and advocates for the poor who have been championed by Francis. Their shared views on caring for society's poorest, and the need for wealthy countries to drastically change course to address climate change, have bumped up against Morales' clashes with the local clergy.
As soon as Morales took office in 2006, for example, the Bible and cross were removed from the presidential palace. A new constitution in 2009 made the overwhelmingly Catholic nation a secular state and Andean religious rituals replaced Catholic rites at official state ceremonies.
"There are some challenging issues in terms of Evo Morales taking on a quite combative role against the church, which he sees as a challenge to his authority," said Clare Dixon, Latin American regional director for CAFOD, the English Catholic aid agency. "The church is also questioning some decisions made about development in the country."
Morales had pledged to safeguard the interests of Bolivia's indigenous. But he has alienated lowlands natives by promoting a highway through a nature reserve and authorizing oil and natural gas exploration in wilderness areas. Cheered by environmentalists abroad for his demand that wealthy nations do more to combat climate change, Morales has been under fire at home from critics, including activists in the church, who say he puts extracting petroleum ahead of clean water and forests.
Francis was expected to raise environmental concerns during his Bolivian sojourn, just as he did in Ecuador. Other highlights of the trip include his visit to the notoriously violent Palmasola prison, where a battle among inmate gangs in 2013 left 30 people dead. As in many Latin American prisons, inmates largely control the inside of Palmasola, which teems with some 3,500 prisoners, more than four in five still awaiting trial.
In a deeply personal gesture soon after he arrived, Francis stopped his motorcade along the highway heading into town at the site where a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Luis Espinal, was left in 1980 after being detained and tortured by Bolivia's paramilitary squads.
"Remember one of our brothers, a victim of interests that didn't want him to fight for Bolivia's freedom," Francis said from the popemobile to a crowd gathered at the site. "Father Espinal preached the Gospel, the Gospel that bothered them, and because of this they got rid of him."
It was a brief but poignant moment, given Francis' own experience with the right-wing military dictatorship in Argentina. Then the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he led the Jesuit order there when two fellow priests were kidnapped by the regime, which joined like-minded governments in Bolivia and Paraguay to mount Operation Condor to wipe out and "disappear" leftist opponents.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Paola Flores contributed to this report.