Francis landed in Ecuador's capital Quito on Sunday to begin an eight-day tour of South America that will also include visits to Bolivia and Paraguay. On his first visit as pontiff to Latin America, the Argentina-born pope is scheduled to conduct masses in both Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil before flying to Bolivia on Wednesday.
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 after 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.
Celebrated by supporters as a champion of the poor but cast by critics as an autocrat, populist leader Correa was elected in 2006 vowing to spread wealth more fairly and protect the country's natural riches.
Ecuador is the eco-center of the world, Correa said in a welcome speech, noting the extraordinary biodiversity of his nation, which is thought to be home to more than one million species, or more than one-tenth of the world's total.
In his encyclical, the pope demanded swift action to save the planet from ruin and urged leaders to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, whom he said were most affected by climate change.
Francis cited Ecuador's natural beauty in his arrival words.
”From the peak of Chimborazo (volcano) to the Pacific coast, from the Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos Islands, may you never lose the ability to thank God for what he has done and is doing for you, he said.
May you never lose the ability to protect what is small and simple, to care for your children and your elderly, to have confidence in the young, and to be constantly struck by the nobility of your people and the singular beauty of your country.”
From Ecuador, Francis moves on to Bolivia, where he is expected to defend the rights of indigenous people. In Bolivia, he will also visit the notoriously violent Palmasola prison. Francis will conclude his tour in Paraguay where hundreds of thousands of visitors from Brazil and Argentina, including president Cristina Fernandez are expected to attend the massive masses planned.