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Pope to meet Calderon, faithful on first full day in Mexico

Pope Benedict XVI is set to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon during his three-day visit to the country and second trip to the world's most Catholic continent

AFP, Saturday 24 Mar 2012
Pope Benedict XVI (L) speaks next to Mexico's President Felipe Calderon (R) and first lady Margarita Zavala as he arrives in Leon March 23, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)
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Pope Benedict XVI will meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and the faithful Saturday, the first full day of his three-day visit to the country, which he began by condemning the "evil" of drug gangs and praying for victims of violence.

Crowds of cheering, flag-waving faithful cheered in the blazing sun along the 20-mile (34 kilometer) journey to the city of Leon made by the pontiff in the pearly white Popemobile after landing in the central, heavily Catholic state of Guanajuato on Friday.

In only his second trip to the world's most Catholic continent, the pope, who turns 85 next month, will visit Silao, Leon and Guanajuato in Mexico until Monday and then spend two days in communist Cuba, in Santiago de Cuba and Havana.

"Brother Benedict, now you're Mexican," shouted young people wearing white t-shirts bearing images of the pope, as mariachi musicians played at the airport.

Benedict said he would pray "particularly for those who suffer... all forms of violence," with expectations high for a strong message of peace amid a wave of drug violence that has left some 50,000 dead in five years.

During the flight, he called for efforts "to fight this evil which destroys our young," referring to drug gang culture.

"It is the responsibility of the church to educate consciences, to teach moral responsibility and to unmask the evil," he said, "to unmask this idolatry of money that enslaves man, to unmask the false promises, the lies, the fraud that is behind drugs."

Mexican authorities promised maximum security during the visit, with some 5,400 security forces deployed, while the archbishop of Leon even called on local drug gangs to agree to a truce.

The pope was set to face criticism over the clerical abuse scandal during the visit, particularly the Vatican's management of Mexico's most notorious offender, Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ order who died in 2008.

Mexican victims of the sexual abuse were disappointed that he had no plans to meet them.

Although Mexico is numerically the world's second most-Catholic nation -- where 84 percent of the population has been baptized -- Catholic numbers have dropped in recent years, partly due to the rise of rival religious movements.

"I wish to confirm those who believe in Christ in their faith, by strengthening and encouraging them to revitalize their faith," Benedict said on his arrival, after greeting Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Some 700,000 visitors were in the region for the sixth papal visit to Mexico, after five by the charismatic John Paul II, in whose shadow the trip inevitably took place.

A highlight of the visit was expected to be a huge mass Sunday in the regional Bicentennial Park, which sits below a towering statue of Christ the King.

The pope on Friday alluded to the strong Catholic traditions of the region, where a Catholic rebellion in the 1920s saw the faithful take up arms against laws that stripped the church of power.

In Cuba, the pope will also seek to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II, who was credited with strengthening the church's relationship to the state and urging the communist island to open up, though it remains highly isolated.

Benedict said that Marxism "no longer corresponds to reality" and called for "new models" amid so far timid changes in the communist regime.

Cuba's Catholic community -- which makes up around 10 percent of the population -- is willing "to help create a constructive dialogue to avoid traumas," he said.

The pope is watching his words to avoid giving fodder to dissidents, who have held a series of protests aimed at pressuring the pope into tackling the government on rights.

"We are open to an exchange" of ideas, said Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez when asked to respond to the pope's comments. "Freedom is one of the most supreme values of our culture."

Benedict's visit commemorates the 400th anniversary of Cuba's patron saint Our Lady of Charity, a statue of Mary found in the sea who is revered for her miracles.

The pope hopes to encourage religious fervor in the secular nation and a big turnout is expected among Catholics at masses on the island.

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