Pope Francis has arrived in Ecuador, in his first visit since becoming pope to the Spanish-speaking part of South America, bringing a message of solidarity with the poor in the region, while trying to rally his church amid dwindling numbers.
Francis, history’s first South American leader of the Catholic church, arrived in the capital Quito at 19:40 GMT on Sunday for a week-long tour of the continent, which also includes stops in Bolivia and Paraguay.
Crowds had begun gathering on Sunday morning along the route from the airport to the papal nuncio’s residence, where Francis will be staying.
More than a million Roman Catholics are expected at mass in Quito on Tuesday.
Francis, already seen by many as “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 is skipping his homeland of Argentina, at least partly to avoid papal entanglement in this year’s presidential election.
Francis had previously visited Portuguese-speaking Brazil in 2013.
Falling world prices for oil and minerals in Ecuador 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.
While in Ecuador, Francis will also be forced to confront a sex abuse scandal which has tainted the church, said Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from Quito.
Dr James Hamilton, one of the sex abuse victims, told Newman that the church’s punishment of paedophiles is an insult.