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QUITO, Ecuador – History's first Latin American pope returns to Spanish-speaking South America for the first time on Sunday, bringing a message of solidarity with the region's poor, who are expected to turn out in droves to welcome their native son home.
"The pope of the poor" chose to visit Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay specifically because they are among the poorest and most marginal nations of a region that claims 40 percent of the world's Catholics. He's skipping his homeland of Argentina, at least partly to avoid papal entanglement in this year's presidential election.
The trip starts in Ecuador, where falling world prices for oil and minerals threaten to fray the social safety net woven by President Rafael Correa, who has been buffeted for nearly a month by the most serious anti-government street protests of his more than eight years in power.
Francis is likely to raise environmental concerns with Correa and the leader of Bolivia — who have promoted mining and oil drilling in wilderness areas — given his recent encyclical on the need to protect nature and the poor who suffer most when it is exploited.
In that document, Francis called for a new development model that rejects today's profit-at-all cost mentality in favor of a Christian view of economic progress that respects human rights, safeguards the planet and involves all sectors of society, the poor and marginalized included.
In a video message on the eve of his departure, Francis said he wanted to bring a message of hope and joy to all "especially the neediest, the elderly, the sick, those in prison and the poor and all those who are victims of this 'throwaway culture.'"
Francis' stops include a violent Bolivian prison, a flood-prone Paraguayan shantytown and a meeting with Bolivian trash pickers, the sort of people he ministered to in the slums of Buenos Aires as archbishop.
Crowds are expected to be huge. While the countries themselves are tiny compared to regional powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina, they are fervently Catholic: 79 percent of the population is Catholic in Ecuador, 77 percent in Bolivia and a whopping 89 percent in Paraguay, according to the Pew Research Center.
"You can imagine what this embrace of love will be, this devotion of our people toward the pope, the universal pastor who comes from Latin America," said Guzman Carriquiri, the No. 2 of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and a top papal adviser.
The Vatican says it expects more than 1 million people to turn out for Francis' major public Masses in each country, and organizers have scheduled plenty of time for the pope to meander through the throngs expected to line his motorcade route.
When St. John Paul II visited Ecuador in 1985, he called for a more just society and reminded indigenous groups of the role played by missionaries who had arrived on the continent centuries before. Francis will likely repeat those messages and pay particular attention to the role his Jesuit order played.
John Paul's visits were shadowed by the Polish pope's concern about the rise of liberation theology, fearing that Marxists were using its "preferential option for the poor" to turn the Gospel into a call for armed revolution.
Carriquiri said a less turbulent situation awaits Francis, who has sought to revive a purer, less political version of liberation theology and recently approved beatification for one of its heroes, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Francis also brokered a historic thaw between the United States and Cuba, countries he will visit in September.
"Francis' visit will be a huge boost to the priests of the Third World and theology of liberation," said Xavier Albo, a fellow Jesuit who, like the pope, is 78. "He lives that theology through mercy, modesty and his obligation to the poor, the immigrants and the imprisoned."
Jesuits paid with their lives defending the downtrodden against dictatorships, as the pope knows well from his days as head of the Jesuits during the right-wing military dictatorship in Argentina.
Opponents of dictatorships in neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia were also disappeared. One, who was tortured and killed in 1980, was Father Luis Espinal, a Bolivian close to Albo whose body was dumped by the side of the airport road that Francis will travel on his way into La Paz on Wednesday.
Francis will stop the Popemobile there, get out and pray.
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome. Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano in Quito contributed to this report.