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Saturday, January 23, 1999 Published at 08:23 GMT

World: Americas

Mexico embraces the Pope

Many hope the Pope's visit will help the situation in Chiapas

Pope John Paul II arrived to an emotional welcome in Mexico on his fourth visit to the devoutly Roman Catholic country.

Chants of "John Paul II, the whole world loves you," echoed across the Benito Juarez International Airport as the pontiff's plane touched down.

David Campanale: The Pope stressed the Roman Catholic roots of Mexico's mixed Spanish Indian culture
Looking tired after the 13-hour flight, the ailing 78-year-old Pontiff was greeted by hundreds of children, church officials and politicians, including President Ernesto Zedillo.

The trip is expected to be John Paul's last and organisers say as many as four million people could cram into the city to participate in this weekend's services and get a glimpse of their religious leader.

On the flight from Rome, he told reporters he was looking forward to being steeped again in Mexican enthusiasm. "They don't let you sleep at night," he said.

The visit is his 85th foreign trip in a 20-year papacy that has taken in more than 100 countries.

Record-breaking Pope

[ image: Anything with the Pope's picture is being snapped up]
Anything with the Pope's picture is being snapped up
Despite Mexico's historically ambivalent attitude towards the Catholic Church, the Pope on an earlier visit was greeted by one of the largest crowds in history - some three million people.

But in recent years, the Church has been challenged by the growing number of Mexicans who have rejected it for the Evangelical church.

Vatican sources however say it is Mexico's overwhelming affection for the Pope that has drawn him back again.

Even the phone booths in the Mexican capital have been decked out in pictures of the Pontiff, with the slogan "Mexico siempre fiel" - Mexico always faithful.

Holy weekend

The Pope has a busy schedule ahead of him.

  • On Saturday, he will say mass at the Guadalupe Basilica, where an elevator has been installed to allow him to pray before a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

  • On Sunday, he will celebrate mass at the Hermanos Rodriguez motor racing track before addressing the country's sick from a hospital in the capital.

  • He will conduct a final mass on Monday in the capital's Aztec stadium.

During his visit, the Pope is due to outline the future strategy of the Roman Catholic Church in the Americas addressing moral issues like birth control and divorce and social issues such as poverty.

Mexico's clergy have become increasingly public critics of government policies, speaking out against political corruption and economic policies that they argue make the poor poorer, and the pope's visit will not lack controversy.

Chiapas hopes

[ image: Decorations are being spruced up]
Decorations are being spruced up
Some people hope that he will make public comment on the alleged human rights abuses in the southern state of Chiapas, scene of the Zapatista uprising for Indian rights.

Around 40 Catholic churches have been forcibly closed by paramilitary groups in the troubled state. The government accuses a prominent bishop in Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz, of supporting the uprising by Zapatista rebels.

Vatican sources say the pope will not directly mention Chiapas, but he will voice his backing for human rights and social justice. "There will be no solution without recognition that the indigenous people were the first owners of the land," the pope told reporters on the flight to Mexico.

Our Mexico correspondent Peter Greste says the Chiapas Indians and Church authorities will interpret such words as a coded message of support.

An opinion poll published in Mexico's Universal newspaper showed 71.3% of those surveyed believed the Pope's visit could help improve the situation in Chiapas and 68% hoped it would improve the situation of the country.

[ image: Commercialisation of the visit has caused controversy]
Commercialisation of the visit has caused controversy

Church planning for the visit has already come in for criticism. The authorities have been accused of resorting to rampant commercialism by allowing corporate sponsorship and official souvenirs. The Church says it has got to cover the costs somehow.

On Tuesday, the Pope will travel to the US city of St Louis, where he is scheduled to meet President Bill Clinton.

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