RIO DE JANEIRO: Pope Francis got a rapturous welcome from tens of thousands of pilgrims on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) as he arrived in Brazil on his first foreign trip as pontiff, but violent protests later swept the streets.
The 76-year-old Argentine rode in a open-top jeep through the center of Rio de Janeiro, kicking off a week-long visit to a country whose Catholic numbers are slipping and in which economic progress has recently been joined by social unrest.
Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, was cheered by throngs of the faithful, but police used tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades to disperse scores of rioters hurling firebombs after the Catholic leader met with President Dilma Rousseff at the state governor’s palace.
Earlier, police blocked access to the palace as hundreds of Anonymous “hacktivists” and gay militants rallied to denounce Rio state Gov. Sergio Cabral’s policies as well as the $53 million spent on the pope’s landmark visit to what remains the world’s most populous Catholic nation.
“Go away Cabral, go away Dilma,” the demonstrators chanted while a huge banner read: “Down with the fascist state and its anti-people governments.”
Rousseff’s popularity has plunged amid frustrations with corruption, poor public services and slowing economic growth. The leftist and Brazil’s first female president acknowledged the social discontent, saying Brazil’s youth was fighting for “a new society.”
After massive protests spiraled into violence in recent weeks, authorities are keen to ensure an incident-free visit for the pontiff, who will attend World Youth Day—an event initiated in 1985 by Pope John Paul II—which officially kicks off also on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) and is expected to attract 1.5 million young Roman Catholics.
Despite the heavy security, with 30,000 soldiers and police mobilized, several people were able to stop the pope’s convoy and touch him through his open window. The pontiff shook hands and kissed babies.
The threat of danger was heightened when the army announced that soldiers had discovered an explosive device during a training session on Sunday in a bathroom at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Sao Paulo state, which the pope will visit on Wednesday.
The homemade device was destroyed and authorities said it was nowhere near the area where the pope or pilgrims will congregate.
Pope Francis, who carried his own luggage on to the papal plane, has come to Brazil to promote his vision of a more humble church.
Excitement about his first overseas visit brought huge crowds into the streets, chanting “long live the pope,” singing and waving the flags of Argentina and other countries.
The pope, first in a small four-door car and then an open-top jeep, waved at the crowd after deciding to leave his armored “Popemobile” behind, a decision that unnerved local authorities.
“I have learned that, to gain access to the Brazilian people, it is necessary to pass through its great heart; so let me knock gently at this door,” Francis said at the governor’s palace.
“I ask permission to come in and spend this week with you. I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ,” said the pope, who will lead an open-air sermon on Copacabana beach on Thursday.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the pope was not worried about the massive crowd and that he wanted to avoid a “militarization” of security, but he went to the governor’s palace by helicopter to avoid the protest.
The Catholic Church in Brazil is facing an erosion of support in the face of the growing strength of Evangelical Protestant churches and a spread of secularism.
More than 90 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholic in 1970, but a poll on Sunday showed just 57 percent now call themselves Catholic, while 28 percent say they are Pentecostal or non-Pentecostal Evangelicals.
Brazil, despite its economic rise, has millions living in shantytowns, and Pope Francis drew attention to the dichotomy when speaking on the papal plane.
“The global crisis has brought nothing good to young people. I saw the data on youth unemployed last week. We run the risk of having a generation without work,” he said.