LIMA (Reuters) - Pope Francis arrived in Peru on Thursday, as President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski appealed to the pontiff to help put the country back on track after a political crisis nearly ousted him from office a month ago.
The Argentine pope landed in the Peruvian capital from neighboring Chile, on the second part of his visit to the two largely Roman Catholic South American nations, where he has sought to restore the Church’s credibility after sex abuse allegations.
Kuczynski, who met the pope at the airport, has called for Francis to bring the country together following an outcry over his presidential pardon of former autocratic leader Alberto Fujimori.
“I hope the visit by Pope Francis puts us once more on the path to peace and dialogue,” Kuczynski said on Twitter before the pope’s arrival.
The pope was greeted by tens of thousands of exuberant followers on the streets of Lima.
Francis will travel to two more Peruvian cities and celebrate Mass in Lima on Sunday, with more than 1 million expected to attend.
Ahead of his arrival, vandals set fire to the door to a church in the southern city of Arequipa and a statue of Jesus Christ on Lima’s skyline was burned a week ago in what authorities blamed on a short circuit. The government warned this week that any unauthorized protesters would be arrested.
Kuczynski’s approval rating has fallen to around 20 percent since the pardon, which allowed Fujimori to leave prison less than halfway through a 25-year sentence for corruption and human rights abuse. It has widely been seen as part of a political deal that Kuczynski struck to remain in office.
Victims of human rights abuse under Fujimori had asked for an audience with the pope, though no such meeting is on his official schedule.
Catholic aid agency CAFOD, which normally abstains from political commentary, joined calls by activists for Francis to address the pardon during his stay in Peru.
“The pardon of Fujimori has opened the wounds of thousands of victims and their families who feel betrayed by this move and consider that forgiveness and reconciliation cannot be attained without justice,” CAFOD said in a statement. “A message on these issues from a spiritual leader would be welcomed by many.”
In Puerto Maldonado, a town at the heart of an illegal gold mining boom that has destroyed large swaths of pristine rainforest that Francis will visit on Friday, thousands of indigenous people gathered to celebrate the first papal visit to the Amazon since the 1980s. Many had traveled from neighboring Bolivia and Brazil.
“Today our land is still being taken,” said Cesar Augusto Yiraje, the chief of the Ese Ejja native community of Palma Real in Peru. “Now with the arrival of the pope, history is being made in Madre de Dios,” he said, referring to the Amazonian region.
Yiraje said he wanted to thank the Church for the help its missionaries gave to his tribe when rubber barons killed and enslaved most of its population, and reminded him that indigenous people are key to protecting the Amazon from deforestation.
In a letter addressed to the pope, Amazonian chiefs asked for help in securing official titles to ancestral land and warding off incursions by outsiders.
Additional reporting by Mitra Taj in Puerto Maldonado and Caroline Stauffer in Lima, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Matthew Lewis