Pope comes 'home' to South America to defend planet and the poor

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Pope Francis Tours Home Continent


Laughing as his cap flew off in the Andean highland wind, Pope Francis flew into Ecuador on Sunday to start a "homecoming" tour of South America, where he will champion the rights of the poor and the planet.

His visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay - three of the region's poorest and smallest countries - is Francis' first abroad since his landmark encyclical urging an end to man's degradation of the global environment.

SEE: Photos from Pope Francis' homecoming tour:

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Pope comes 'home' to South America to defend planet and the poor
Pope Francis waves as he rides in the popemobile through the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, on July 7, 2015. Pope Francis addressed 900,000 faithful who braved the cold and rain to hear him at an outdoor mass in Quito's Bicentennial Park. 'Fight for inclusion at all levels,' the pontiff said, pleading for 'dialogue' on the third day of a South American tour that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO / JUAN CEVALLOS (Photo credit should read JUAN CEVALLOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves as he rides in the popemobile through the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, on July 7, 2015. Pope Francis addressed 900,000 faithful who braved the cold and rain to hear him at an outdoor mass in Quito's Bicentennial Park. 'Fight for inclusion at all levels,' the pontiff said, pleading for 'dialogue' on the third day of a South American tour that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO / JUAN CEVALLOS (Photo credit should read JUAN CEVALLOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Faithful wait for Pope Francis at the Marian National Shrine of 'El Quinche' in the outskirts of Quito on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, heads Wednesday to Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent's poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds. Francis will arrive in the Andean state from Ecuador, where he will wrap up his stay with a visit to a sanctuary of the Virgin of El Quinche outside the capital Quito. AFP PHOTO/JUAN CEVALLOS (Photo credit should read JUAN CEVALLOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Policemen are deployed waiting for Pope Francis at the Nursing Home of the Missionaries of Charity in Tumbaco, Ecuador on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, heads Wednesday to Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent's poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds. Francis will arrive in the Andean state from Ecuador, where he will wrap up his stay with a visit to a sanctuary of the Virgin of El Quinche outside the capital Quito. AFP PHOTO/VLADIMIR RODAS (Photo credit should read VLADIMIR RODAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A girl waits for the arrival of Pope Francis before a meeting with the clergy, religious, and seminarians at the Marian National Shrine of 'El Quinche' in Quito on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis is in Ecuador as part of his first South American trip in two years that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO /RODRIGO BUENDIA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis and a peasant smile during a meeting with political, economic and civil leaders at San Francisco Church in Quito, on July 7, 2015. Pope Francis addressed 900,000 faithful who braved the cold and rain to hear him at an outdoor mass in Quito's Bicentennial Park. 'Fight for inclusion at all levels,' the pontiff said, pleading for 'dialogue' on the third day of a South American tour that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Faithful await for the arrival of Pope Francis at the church of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, 2015. Pope Francis warned against the 'temptation' of 'single leaderships' on Tuesday in front of nearly one million people at an outdoor mass in Ecuador's capital, recently rocked by anti-government protests. AFP PHOTO/LUIS ROBAYO (Photo credit should read LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)
Faithful await for the arrival of Pope Francis to San Francisco Church for the meeting with civil society members in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / LUIS ROBAYO (Photo credit should read LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis is seen before celebrating an open-air mass at the Bicentennial Park in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, 2015. The visit of the Argentine-born pontiff comes amid widespread unrest over the socialist policies of President Rafael Correa --who is expected to attend the mass. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis greets a girl next to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa (R) upon arrival at the Mariscal Sucre international airport in Quito on July 5, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in Quito Sunday to begin his first South American trip in two years, for an eight-day tour of Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay highlighting the plight of the poor on his home continent. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO BUENDIA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis alights from the aircraft upon his arrival in Quito on July 5, 2015. The pontiff will make a nine-day apostolic trip in South America and visit Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man kisses Pope Francis's ring as he leaves aboard a small car the Mariscal Sucre international airport in Quito on July 5, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in Quito Sunday to begin his first South American trip in two years, for an eight-day tour of Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay highlighting the plight of the poor on his home continent. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO BUENDIA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)
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"I thank God for having allowed me to return to Latin America and to be here with you today in this beautiful land of Ecuador," the Argentine-born pontiff said in a speech on the runway after his 13-hour flight from Rome.

When he emerged from the plane, a breeze whipped off his white zucchetto cap and swirled his robes, but the affable 78-year-old took it in his stride, smiling and laughing as he walked down steps to an embrace from President Rafael Correa.

He was then greeted by a group of people dressed in indigenous clothing, including a white blouse with sharp red and orange colors and a large red skirt. One, 16-year-old Elizabeth Maldonado, said afterward that she had never dreamed she would hug the pope.

"It was something so beautiful, marvellous, a positive energy, a huge blessing for us," she said. Tens of thousands lined the streets as Francis' motorcade drove into Quito, some pushing through a police line. Well-wishers threw gifts at the popemobile, including two live white doves.

Francis stopped briefly to kiss the head of an elderly lady and a man who carried a baby in his arms.

The pope visited Brazil for a youth festival in 2013 but that was to substitute for predecessor Benedict after his sudden resignation. Because he chose the three nations himself, Vatican aides say this is the real "homecoming" to his native continent.

MORATORIUM ON PROTESTS

His first host, Ecuador, has for weeks been hit by anti-government demonstrations, with thousands on the streets to protest against tax changes and alleged state authoritarianism.

Protest leaders have called a moratorium during the pope's visit out of respect for him, and in his arrival speech Francis stressed the need for dialogue and respecting differences.

Celebrated by supporters as a champion of the poor but cast by critics as an autocrat, leftist leader Correa was elected in 2006 vowing to spread wealth more fairly and protect the country's natural riches.

"Ecuador is the eco-center of the world," Correa said in a welcome speech, noting the extraordinary biodiversity of his nation, which is thought to be home to more than one million species, or more than one-tenth of the world's total.

Quito, a highland capital mixing colonial cobbled streets with modern high-rises, was plastered with posters and billboards welcoming Francis. A million extra people are expected in Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil for masses.

"He's a person who transmits love and peace for all humanity," said Andrea Ramirez, 25, a nun who took an eight-hour bus from Loja in the country's south to Quito last night.

"He'll teach Ecuadoreans that Christ lives and is present here, despite all the conflicts and social problems. He'll bring peace and love to Ecuador," she added, outside a huge neo-gothic basilica overlooking Quito.

Boasting some of the world's most extraordinary habitats -- from the Amazon jungle to the Galapagos islands --- yet heavily reliant on oil and mining, Ecuador in many ways illustrates the issues at the heart of Francis' recent exhortations on the environment.

In his encyclical, the pope demanded swift action to save the planet from ruin and urged leaders to hear "the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor," whom he said were most affected by climate change.

"PROTECT WHAT IS SMALL AND SIMPLE"

Francis cited Ecuador's natural beauty in his arrival words.

"From the peak of Chimborazo [volcano] to the Pacific coast, from the Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos Islands, may you never lose the ability to thank God for what he has done and is doing for you," he said.

"May you never lose the ability to protect what is small and simple, to care for your children and your elderly, to have confidence in the young, and to be constantly struck by the nobility of your people and the singular beauty of your country."

On Monday, Francis will fly south to the coastal city of Guayaquil to deliver a mass before heading back to Quito to meet with Correa. On Tuesday he is to deliver a mass at Quito's Bicentenario Park, where some were already camped out to see him.

On Wednesday, Francis moves on to Bolivia, where he is expected to defend the rights of indigenous people. In Bolivia, he will also visit the notoriously violent Palmasola prison.

Landlocked Paraguay, the last stop, is notorious for contraband smuggling and illicit financing. Francis will meet several groups of social activists while he is there.

While all three countries are between 82 percent and 93 percent Catholic, the Church in other parts of Latin America is losing followers to Protestant evangelical groups.

Identification with Catholicism is declining throughout the region, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.

The pope, however, has felt more comfortable holding dialogues with these groups than his two immediate predecessors did. He had good relations with Protestant evangelical groups when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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