- Gay activist Simón Cazal invited to meeting with Pope
- He's become an unlikely champion of Pope Francis
Asunción (CNN)Gay rights activist and atheist Simón Cazal never imagined he would be one of Pope Francis' biggest champions during the pontiff's visit to Paraguay.
In fact, the director and co-founder of SomosGay, or We Are Gay, was shocked when he was invited to the pontiff's meeting with civil society.
"I thought it was a joke," he told CNN during an interview at the group's headquarters in Asunción.
Cazal said many LGBT activists throughout Latin America told him he should turn down the invitation, but in Paraguay, there was a groundswell of support from the gay community.
"We have to go. Ninety percent of the country is Catholic; they all love the Pope," Cazal said. "We have to take this step because otherwise we are the ones who are closing the doors."
Cazal said he also realized Pope Francis could be a powerful tool in the fight to stop violence against young gays and lesbians.
"We need his strong voice on the side of defending the life and integrity of LGBT people," he said.
The encounter on Saturday afternoon with a few hundred community leaders is being billed as the first time an LGBT campaigner has been invited to a conversation with a pope, sending a strong message in a country where gays suffer discrimination and violence.
According to Cazal, SomosGay helps about 6,000 people a year -- the vast majority of them young gays and lesbians who have been beaten and rejected by their very own families.
Cazal said he would love to hear Pope Francis deliver a very basic message of love and acceptance to Paraguayan families.
"The message I would want to hear? Please don't kick your sons and daughters out of the house because they're gay."
One of the many young men and women rejected by their families now works at SomosGay, an office in a rundown part of the city covered in politically charged murals.
The 20-year-old man said he was raised with love and acceptance by his Catholic grandparents. But they died when he was 16 and he was thrown out of the house by his aunt and uncle.
"It wasn't just beatings, it was the psychological abuse," he said, detailing name-calling and taunting.
In the past, Pope Francis has said that although homosexual acts are sinful, gay people should not be marginalized. In 2013, talking to journalists on a flight back from Brazil he famously said, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"
Here in Paraguay, Cazal said regardless of whether the Pope directly addresses the issue, the meeting is producing positive change.
"The invitation is already serving a purpose," he said. "It sends a symbolic message of inclusion and respect."