MANILA: Pope Francis on Friday demanded leaders in the graft-plagued Philippines end “scandalous social inequalities”, as he called on them to show integrity and reject corruption.
He made the comments in his first major speech of a five-day visit to the Catholic Church’s Asian stronghold, where tens of millions live in deep poverty, after arriving to a rapturous reception on Thursday.
“The great biblical tradition enjoins on all peoples the duty to hear the voice of the poor. It bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities,” the pope said in the speech at the presidential palace.
Francis said that the Philippines, “together with many other countries in Asia”, faces the challenge of building a modern society that respects “our God-given human dignity and rights”.
To help the poor in the Philippines, Francis demanded that leaders and all other members of society fight corruption.
“It is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good,” he said.
He challenged “everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption, which diverts resources from the poor”.
He said reforming social structures to end poverty required a “conversion of mind and heart”.
Francis had moments earlier met President Benigno Aquino, who has waged a high-profile campaign against corruption that has seen his predecessor and three senators detained.
Aquino also orchestrated the impeachment of the Supreme Court’s chief justice on corruption charges, and he has won international plaudits for his efforts.
But critics of Aquino, the son of democracy heroine Corazon Aquino, have accused him of focusing his anti-graft campaign only on opponents and not allies.
And, despite some of Asia’s strongest economic growth, Aquino’s more than four years in office have failed to make a major dent on poverty.
About 25 million Filipinos, or one-quarter of the population, live on the equivalent of 60 cents a day or less, according to the latest official poverty surveys.
The poverty has forced about 10 million Filipinos to head overseas in search of a better life.
Francis said one of the main purposes of his trip was to visit survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda, which left 7,350 people dead or missing in 2013.
Francis will spend Saturday in areas of the central Philippines that were devastated by the typhoon, which smashed into coastal communities with the strongest winds ever recorded on land.
“In a particular way, this visit is meant to express my closeness to our brothers and sisters who endured the suffering, loss and devastation caused by Typhoon Yolanda,” he said.
Francis enjoyed a hero’s welcome when he arrived in the Philippines on Thursday night, with hundreds of thousands of people crowding the streets of Manila to get a first glimpse of him as he travelled in a motorcade.
The Philippines has long been the Church’s stronghold in the region, with 80 percent of the former Spanish colony’s 100 million people members of the faith.
The high point of the pope’s trip is expected to be an open-air mass on Sunday at a park in Manila, with organisers preparing for up to six million people.
If as big as expected, the crowd would surpass the previous record for a papal gathering of five million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.
After meeting Aquino at the presidential palace and delivering his speech, the pope travelled to the nearby Manila Cathedral, a centuries-old church from the Spanish era, to celebrate mass.
Later in the day the 78-year-old pontiff will meet thousands of devotees for a more relaxed prayer service at Manila’s top concert arena, where music fans have flocked in recent years to see the likes of Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.