Pope Francis greeted Bolivia with a message of inclusion, a central theme of his three-nation tour to his home continent, as he arrived in South America's poorest nation. Landing in La Paz early in the evening, thousands of faithful -- many of whom had spent a chilly night outdoors waiting for him -- welcomed the pope as choirs sang in the indigenous Aymara language.
He was met by Evo Morales, a champion of Latin America's left, Bolivia's first indigenous president and a great promoter of the medicine properties of coca leaves. In style as soon as the Pope landed Morales greeted him with a neck pouch, in which the locals carry their coca leaves to chew. Coca leaves help to mitigate effects of altitude, but also help to contain hunger.
Francis's trip to Bolivia follows a four-day visit to Ecuador, where he celebrated two massive outdoor masses and pleaded for dialogue in a country rocked by anti-government protests. On Friday he will travel to Paraguay.
The pope arrived in the thin air of Bolivia's El Alto airport, at more than 4,000 meters above sea level. Concerned authorities had extra oxygen tanks on hand for the Argentine-born pope, who lost a lung during his youth.
Francis welcomed the important steps Morales' government had made to include wide sectors in the country's economic, social and political life.
I am happy to be in this country of singular beauty, said the 78-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who visited the Andean nation at least twice in his youth.
This is a land blessed by its people, with its cultural reality and diverse ethnicity, which make for a great richness and create a permanent call for mutual respect and dialogue, he said, appealing for participation by all, without excluding or rejecting anyone a central theme of his tour.
Calling the pope his brother, Morales thanked Francis for visiting us at home, with a message of hope and liberation.
Morales, for his part, recalled how the Catholic Church in the past was on the side of the oppressors of Bolivia's people, three-quarters of whom are of indigenous origin. But Morales, an Aymara Indian known for anti-imperialist and socialist stands, said things have changed with this pope and the Bolivian people are greeting Francis as someone who is helping in the liberation of our people.
He who betrays a poor person, betrays Pope Francis, Morales said.
The Bolivian leader, whose links with the local Catholic Church have been strained since his arrival in office in 2006, has visited Francis at the Vatican two times, in 2013 and 2014.
On his way from the airport to La Paz, the pope stopped at the site of the March 1980 assassination by the military of Spanish Jesuit priest Luis Espinal, which occurred at a dark time in the region's history, two days before Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero was slain.
Francis, the first Jesuit pope, then met government leaders at the presidential palace and visited the city's main cathedral in Murillo square, where he met civil society leaders.
There the pope called for reasonable and fair solutions to conflicts between fraternal peoples, in a clear allusion to the ongoing dispute between Bolivia and Chile over ocean access.
Due to the tough climate, Francis remained in the capital for only three hours, before flying to the plains of Santa Cruz. Here on Thursday the pope will deliver his sole Bolivian mass at the foot of a giant Christ the Redeemer statue, with more than a million people expected to attend. The day has been declared a holiday.
He is also expected to speak about his new passion: his defence of Mother Earth, or Pachamama in Bolivian indigenous tradition.
In the presence of Francis and Morales, the city will also host the second World Meeting of Popular Movements, an initiative launched at the Vatican last year.
Before leaving for Paraguay on Friday, Francis will visit the huge Palmasola prison, scene of violent gang fighting in 2013 which left 31 people dead.
All three of the countries Francis is visiting are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality mostly afflicting indigenous populations.