Pope to meet indigenous people in Peruvian Amazon

Katell ABIVEN
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Street vendors sell merchandise related to Pope Francis' visit in Puerto Maldonado, Peru

Pope Francis was to make his first visit Friday to the Amazon on the final leg of a South American trip, with a festive atmosphere awaiting him in the Peruvian city of Puerto Maldonado as thousands of indigenous people gathered.

"For the first time in this city, the indigenous communities of almost all of South America have come together. That is not an easy thing to do, so it is historic," said Jose Trinidad, 69, who travelled from Lima, the Peruvian capital.

Overnight from Thursday to Friday, the sounds of song and dance echoed through the town square, where the pope will meet Friday with indigenous peoples from Peru, Brazil and Bolivia.

"Pope Francis, the Amazon welcomes you," said a slogan on one of the banners adorning the city.

A Peruvian indigenous group planned Friday to give the pontiff a bow and arrow as a symbolic gesture aimed at urging him to defend their land rights they say they have been stripped of.

"We are a people robbed of our ancestral lands," said Cesar Jojaje Eriney, 43, leader of the Ese Eja tribe, as he put his feathered headdress in place.

He expressed hope that the pope might act as a mediator in the push to encourage the government to return his people's land. "It is the only window," Jojaje Eriney said.

The Amazon region will be the focal point of a world bishops meeting, or synod, to take place in October 2019.

- Controversial bishop -

The pope's plane landed on Thursday at 4:30 pm (2130 GMT) in Peru's capital Lima, where he was greeted by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and his American wife Nancy Lange, according to AFP reporters.

The pontiff earlier highlighted the plight of vulnerable immigrants and robustly defended a bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse, at the end of a visit to Chile overshadowed by controversy.

"Let us be attentive to those who profit from the irregular status of many immigrants who don't know the language or who don't have their papers 'in order,'" Francis told a colourful congregation of some 50,000 people at an open-air mass on a beach in the northern border region of Iquique.

The 81-year-old pontiff has confronted sensitive issues at every turn since he began his visit Monday, offering an apology to victims of priestly sexual abuse, praying with survivors of Augusto Pinochet's brutal dictatorship, and calling for protection of the rights of Chile's persecuted indigenous communities.

The sex abuse issue dogged him almost to the altar as he prepared to celebrate mass on Thursday.

Prodded by journalists, Pope Francis reiterated his support for bishop Juan Barros who he appointed in 2015 although he stands accused of covering up another priest's abuse of boys.

"There is not a single piece of proof against him. Everything is slander. Is this clear?" the pontiff said.

Barros attended the beach ceremony along with hundreds of other bishops and clergy -- and had been a conspicuous presence at both the pope's previous open-air masses and his meeting with clergy in Santiago.

Ahead of the pope's visit, the US-based NGO Bishop Accountability said almost 80 members of the Roman Catholic clergy had been accused of sexually abusing children in Chile since 2000.

Local Catholic groups in Barros' southern diocese of Osorno are demanding that Francis remove him for his ties to one of the highest-profile abusers, disgraced paedophile priest Fernando Karadima.