IO DE JANEIRO (AFP) – Pope Francis will encounter the poverty that continues to blight modern Brazil Thursday, touring a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro before addressing thousands of young Catholic followers on Copacabana beach.
The Argentine-born pontiff’s day four schedule will give him starkly contrasting images of the Marvelous City — the desolation of its northern slums and the opulence of posh beach resorts frequented by the newly rich.
The tour follows the pope’s intervention Wednesday on the drug problems that are sweeping Latin America, in which he forcefully rejected possible plans among the region’s political leaders to legalize the trade.
The Catholic leader, feted since arriving on Monday, delved into the drugs issue after celebrating the first public mass of his week-long visit, in which he has sought to deliver a message of hope to the poor and vulnerable.
“A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America,” he said as he met crack addicts and inaugurated a rehabilitation ward at a Rio hospital run by Franciscan monks.
Hours earlier, the pope, who is mainly in Rio for a Catholic youth festival, urged the faithful to reject “ephemeral idols” such as money, power and success — issues particularly pertinent given Brazil’s recent economic rise.
On Thursday, the pontiff — a football fan — will receive the keys of the city, bless the Olympic flag ahead of the 2016 Summer Games and huddle with sports celebrities, possibly including Brazilian football legend Pele.
His attention will then return to the core message of his trip — to give hope to the poor in Brazil, the world’s most populous Catholic country, visiting the Varginha shantytown.
The impoverished community of a thousand people is located in an area known as the “Gaza Strip” because of frequent and violent clashes between armed drug gangs and police.
There, the first Latin American pope will meet a family and bless the altar of the tiny Sao Jeromino Emiliani church before addressing around 30,000 people at a nearby soccer field.
Varginha is one of dozens of Rio slums where police have evicted drug gangs and reasserted control ahead of next year’s World Cup and the Olympics that will follow two years later.
Its residents are roughly equally divided between Catholics and Evangelical protestants, and both communities have vowed to welcome the pontiff.
Vatican officials, however, have made no secret of the fact that the pope’s first trip abroad since election aims to revitalize the eroding Catholic faith at a time when evangelical churches are gaining strength in Brazil.
On Thursday evening, Pope Francis will be officially welcomed by mammoth crowds of young Catholics attending World Youth Day (WYD) on famous Copacabana beach.
On Tuesday night, more than 500,000 of them flooded the beach for a mass led by Rio Archbishop Orani Tempesta to kick off the event, amid scenes of chaos as the city’s transportation system was overwhelmed following a two-hour metro breakdown.
That came a day after crowds of pilgrims were able to stop the pope’s convoy and reach their hands inside his car’s open window after the driver made a wrong turn as he made his way into Rio from the airport.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes has apologized and said steps were being taken to avoid a repeat of such “deplorable incidents.”
Despite tight security after the pope met with President Dilma Rousseff at the state government headquarters, hundreds of demonstrators protesting the $53 million spent on organizing the papal visit clashed with riot police nearby.
Several people were hurt, including an AFP photographer, after police used tear gas and water cannon against rioters who hurled firebombs.