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Pope visits slum dwellers

Pope Francis visits the Banado Norte slum area in Asuncion, Paraguay, yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Pope Francis visits the Banado Norte slum area in Asuncion, Paraguay, yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Pope Francis, wrapping up his three-country tour of South America, yesterday urged people living in a flood-prone shantytown in Paraguay to stay united in their struggle for better living and working conditions.

Pope Francis looked moved as he heard harrowing tales of life in Banado Norte, a warren of shacks not far from downtown Asuncion that are home to about 100,000 people, many of whom are squatting on city land after being forced from their farms.

“Our expulsion from the countryside, the high prices of land and housing in the city, coupled with low incomes are the reasons we find ourselves in the ‘Banado’,” Maria Garcia, a local organiser, told him from a platform before thousands of fellow residents. All of them want title deeds to their homes.

Pope Francis drew cheers when he said he could not leave Paraguay without first “spending some time with you, here on your land”. The Pontiff has made defending the poor a major theme of his “homecoming” trip, which also took him to Ecuador and Bolivia, ranked among Latin America’s poorest countries.

A faith without solidarity is a dead faith

On Saturday night, he appealed to world leaders to seek a new economic model to help the destitute, and to shun policies that “sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit”. In Banado Norte, murals adorned the walls of houses made of corrugated metal, wood and cement blocks. One of them read: “Yes to life, no to drugs, fight for change.”

“We built our neighbourhoods inch by inch, overcoming difficult terrain, floods and hostile public authorities,” Garcia told him. “It’s been a tough fight to put up a home in the midst of hardship but we never gave in nor let ourselves be swept away by sadness.”

The Pope, who prayed in a chapel in the slum, told them: “Keep going. Don’t let the devil divide you,” noting that “a faith without solidarity is a dead faith”. At the end of his visit he asked them say the Lord’s Prayer in the Guarani language.

Pope Francis regularly entered slums in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, when he was archbishop and has visited some of Rome’s poorer neighbourhoods.

From Banado Norte, the Pope went to hold a Mass for more than a million people, in a disused air base.

The altar’s backdrop was designed by a local artist who used corn cobs, coconuts, squashes, beans, seeds and other local produce to create huge murals of St Francis of Assisi, from whom the Pope took his name, and St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, the religious order to which he belongs.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez who flew in to attend the Mass greeted Pope Francis at the altar at the end of the service. They had a tricky relationship when he was an archbishop because of his criticisms of the government’s economic policies.

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