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

QUITO, Ecuador — Laughing as his hat 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.

“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.

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

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.

A million extra people are in Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil for Masses.

From Ecuador, Francis moves on to Bolivia, where he is expected to defend the rights of indigenous people. In Bolivia, he will 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.


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