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No rest for Francis in Peru, where a divided society and church await

SANTIAGO, Chile – After three trying days in Chile, facing a sex abuse crisis and several layers of political tension, not to mention the specter of churches being attacked while he was in town, Pope Francis might be forgiven for hoping he could throttle back a bit as he heads to Peru on Thursday.

And in many ways, the atmosphere is more relaxed. The welcome Pope Francis received in Lima on Thursday night, for instance, was marked by a ceremony full of honors — diametrically different from the one he received in Santiago, that was perfunctory at best.

The streets were packed with hundreds of thousands of Peruvians celebrating the papal visit, with signs welcoming the pontiff hung in countless surfaces of every shape, color and background: bridges, schools, pharmacies and even motorcycle stores wanted the Argentine pontiff to know that this country containing seasides, mountains and jungles — all of which he’ll visit over the next three days — is happy to have him.

However, despite the much warmer welcome, Peru is likely not to be a walk in the park either. Here, Francis is set to encounter another complex scenario there, including a highly divided society and Church.

Alas, it’s likely not to be, as the pontiff is set to encounter another complex scenario there, including a highly divided society and Church.

The pope left Chile on Thursday, flying from the capital, Santiago, to Iquique, and then on to Lima, the Peruvian capital, with no activity upon his arrival Thursday night. Starting Friday morning, however, his three-day visit includes three cities, and in each one he’s bound to address very specific realities.

With no official activity upon his arrival, the visit will kick off in Puerto Maldonado, a small Amazonian city close to the border with Brazil and an informal capital city of Peru’s legendary biodiversity.

A rain-forest city on the border, a bishop speaking with Crux defined it as “one of the most forgotten cities in the country.”

From that setting, the pope is expected not only to call for the defense of the Pan-Amazonian region, considered one of the world’s “lungs” for the large share of the planet’s oxygen supply it generates and for the protection of its people, but also about the many problems that afflict those who live in the jungle.

“The main purposes of his visit to Puerto Maldonado are the natives, ecology and bringing attention to the Amazon region, often forgotten, despite the fact that we all need it to breath,” said Father Jose Maria Castillo, an American who’s been living in Puerto Maldonado for 10 years. “Yet we hope that he’ll also shine a light on other problems of the jungle, such as mining, sexual trafficking of minors and alcoholism.”

Late last year, Francis announced that he was calling a synod of bishops focused specifically on this region, saying he was doing so in response to requests from the bishops of Latin America, especially those whose countries include the Amazon.

According to Mauricio López, Executive Secretary of REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, life in the Pan-Amazonian region, which includes Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Perú, Venezuela and Surinam today is at risk, threatened by mining and oil companies producing “environmental disasters” with the complicity of local governments.

The pope’s visit, López told Crux, is a way of shining a spotlight on the “signs of death” occurring “around this throwaway culture of incessant exploitation.”

“The fact that he’s visiting Puerto Maldonado will also give visibility to the fact that our mother church is being beaten and mistreated,” he said.

At the invitation of local Bishop David Martinez, prelates from eight of the nine countries that make up the Pan-Amazonian region will participate in the encounter Francis will have with the peoples of the region. Indigenous leaders from four countries will also be present.

Many of them are already in Peru, where on Thursday they participated in a pre-synod gathering. According to Castillo, some 2,000 people took part in the meeting, a prelude to what will be the encounter with Francis, both in Puerto Maldonado and in Rome.

Francis has made the protection of the environment one of the cornerstones of his papacy, and the Pan-Amazonian region has been a concern for quite some time. In a landmark 2007 document of the Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, which was edited by then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis, the issue came up repeatedly.

“With the native peoples of the Americas, we praise the Lord who created the universe as the realm of life and the shared existence of all his sons and daughters, and left it to us as a sign of his goodness and his beauty,” the document says.

His first full day in Peru will be a busy one: After meeting some 4,000 indigenous people in the Mother of God Coliseum, he’ll have an encounter with the local population, then visit the Hogar Principito, home for some 35 orphan children. His last activity in Puerto Maldonado will be to have lunch with representatives of the peoples of the Amazon.

Once back in Lima, he’ll address the local authorities, meet with President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and, to close the day, Francis will have a private meeting with the local Jesuit community, something he does during most of his trips abroad.

During the session with civil authorities, locals will be paying close attention to what the pontiff says, or doesn’t say, which could in some way be read as a commentary on a recent scandal involving a presidential pardon, and the broader issue of corruption in public life.

On Dec. 24 Kuczynski extended a pardon on medical grounds to former president Alberto Fujimori, who was in prison for human rights violations that military death squads carried out on his watch during a 1990s-era campaign against terrorism.

The issue has divided Peruvian society, with many believing the pardon was a political favor, given that it came three days after a legislative faction led by Fujimori’s son refused to give the president’s foes a supermajority they needed to oust him over corruption allegations. A Brazilian construction firm has stated publicly that they bribed Kuczynski while he was in his previous post.

Clerical sexual abuse will also loom large during the visit, even if Peru’s most infamous Catholic abuser is a lay person rather than a priest. Luis Fernando Figari, the founder and former superior general of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), has been accused of both physical and verbal abuse, and his own movement has acknowledged that he’s “guilty of the abuses of which he is accused and declare him persona non grata for our organization, which totally deplores and condemns his behavior.”

A week before the trip, the Vatican announced it was taking over the lay movement, naming a Colombian bishop as the “commissioner” of the SCV and keeping Cardinal Joseph William Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark, in his role as papal delegate for the organization.

In one sign of social ferment over the issue, Six Peruvian shamans held rituals on a beach near Lima before the pope’s arrival, saying they wanted to give him the strength to fight against accusations of sexual abuse within the Church.

Local media reported that they were dressed in ponchos, carrying Andean amulets and a wooden cross. With their feet on the water, they passed rue leaves – which they believe ward off evil – over a picture of Francis.

“We want to congratulate Francis for being a leader with sufficient strength to get rid of pedophile priests,” shaman Juan Osco reportedly said.

On Saturday, Francis will head to the northwestern city of Trujillo, capital of a region that in early 2017 was heavily affected by flooding caused by a climate phenomenon known as “coastal El Niño.” Many lost their lives, and thousands have been living in tents since losing everything.

Reconstruction of the city has been slow, and frustrations are beginning to prevail over hope.

In the afternoon, Francis is scheduled to host a Marian celebration, and some 20 images that inspire a strong popular devotion will be brought from different towns for the occasion.

Before departing Peru, the pope will say Mass in Lima and honor the relics of several Peruvian saints, including St. Rose of Lima, the first saint of the Americas, and St. Martin de Porres. He’s scheduled to depart the country on the evening of Jan. 21, arriving back in Rome late afternoon on Jan. 22.

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