Pope to visit Peru region hard hit by floods

Catherine MARCIANO
A Peruvian woman on pilgrimage to the town of Huanchaco on January 19 ahead of a visit by Pope Francis

Pope Francis was set Saturday to hold a huge outdoor mass in a coastal region of Peru struggling to rebuild in the wake of devastating floods last year.

His visit to Trujillo province, some 560 kilometers (350 miles) north of Lima, will be a change of pace after a politically charged first day in the Latin American country where he railed against "great business interests" for endangering the Amazon and its tribes.

The mass will take place on a wide swathe of beach able to accommodate 500,000 people, in the historic town of Huanchaco popular with surfers and known for its distinctive reed watercraft known as "caballitos de totora."

Many had already begun gathering there Friday night in anticipation of the pontiff, despite persistent drizzle.

He will then go to the town's poor "Buenos Aires" neighborhood which was especially hard hit by flooding last April.

More than 130 people were killed across Peru in heavy rains, floods and landslides fuelled by the El Nino weather phenomenon between January and April 2017, which also left at least 300,000 homeless.

The leader of the Catholic church will later preside over a ceremony in the town square before some 35,000 followers and meet with members of the clergy.

"We are waiting to see if the Pope brings blessings and can fix everything we have lost", said resident Lidia Garcia.

On Friday, he had sounded a stark warning about the future of the rainforest and tribe members, saying they had "never been so threatened."

Bare-chested tribesmen, their bodies painted and their heads crowned with colorful feathers, danced and sang for the pope when he arrived in the Peruvian city of Puerto Maldonado.

Thousands of indigenous people had traveled to meet the pontiff from throughout the Amazon basin region of Peru, Brazil and Bolivia.

Pope Francis, 81, arrived Thursday afternoon in Peru, the second and last leg of a week-long South American visit.

During the first part of his visit, in Chile, Francis highlighted the plight of vulnerable immigrants, offered an apology to victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, prayed with survivors of Augusto Pinochet's brutal dictatorship, and called for protection of Chile's persecuted indigenous communities.

Before his visit to Chile, the US-based NGO Bishop Accountability said that almost 80 members of the Roman Catholic clergy had been accused of sexually abusing children in Chile since 2000.

At the pope's first public mass in Santiago on Tuesday, he faced protests over the church's handling of decades of sexual abuse.