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By Girlie Linao, dpa (TNS)

MANILA — Pope Francis on Friday called on Catholic Church leaders and the Philippine government to end the “scandalous” inequalities brought about by rampant corruption in the country.

On the first day of a highly-anticipated four-day visit, the pontiff stressed the need for political leaders to show honesty and integrity in order to fulfill “the moral imperative of ensuring social justice and respect for human dignity.”

During an address at the Malacanang presidential palace, Pope Francis called on government officials, business leaders and diplomats to “hear the voice of the poor.”

“(The biblical tradition) bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression, which give rise to glaring — and indeed scandalous — social inequalities,” he said.

The Argentinian cleric was honored with a 21-gun salute on the palace grounds, where he kissed and embraced children before holding a one-on-one meeting with President Benigno Aquino.

Pope Francis said bishops in the Philippines, where a quarter of an estimated 100 million people live on 1 dollar a day, have asked that 2015 be declared the official Year of the Poor.

“I hope that this prophetic summons will challenge everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor, and to make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child in the life of the community,” he said.

Before the pope’s speech, Aquino criticized Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines for failing to speak out about corruption in the administration of his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, who is being held on electoral fraud charges.

“We were taught that the Catholic Church is the true church, and that there is constancy, for it upholds the truth at all times,” he said.

“Hence, there was a true test of faith when many members of the Church — once advocates for the poor, the marginalized, and the helpless — suddenly became silent in the face of the previous administration’s abuses, which we are still trying to rectify to this very day.”

In a mass attended by 1,500 priests, bishops and lay people afterwards, Pope Francis called on the Filipino clergy to combat inequality, injustice and corruption, as well as championing the poor.

“Only by becoming poor ourselves, by stripping away our complacency, will we be able to identify with our brothers and sisters,” he said.

“Be present to those who, living in the midst of a society burdened by poverty and corruption, are broken in spirit, tempted to give up, to leave school and to live on the streets.”

Pope Francis later met with Filipino families in a packed arena, where he blessed elderly, disabled and sick attendees.

He praised the resilience of millions of Filipinos battered in 2013 by Typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands of people in the country’s east.

“I admire the heroic strength, faith and resilience demonstrated by so many Filipinos in the face of natural disaster,” said the pontiff.

Pope Francis was expected on Saturday to visit the eastern city of Tacloban, which was among the worst hit by Haiyan.

The Philippines is the largest predominantly Catholic country in Asia, with Muslims constituting more than 80 percent of the population.

Photo: Catholic Church (England and Wales) via Flickr

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