Page last updated at 05:23 GMT, Wednesday, 16 April 2008 06:23 UK

Latinos welcome Pope's warm words

By Emilio San Pedro
Americas Editor, BBC World Service

The flags of the US and the Holy See in Washington, 15 April, 2008
Washington DC has rolled out the red carpet for Pope Benedict

The sound of the Lord's Prayer being recited in Spanish emanated through the Catholic Shrine of the Sacred Heart shortly after the leader of the world's Catholics arrived on his first official US visit.

Those reciting the prayers were a microcosm of the millions of Latino Catholics in the US.

Just hours earlier, Pope Benedict XVI had said he would raise the plight of Hispanic migrants in talks with President Bush.

For those gathered here, the Pope's visit and his professed support for the millions of undocumented immigrants living illegally in the US is being seen as cause for celebration.

And, in fact, the Pope expressed his solidarity with those immigrants even before leaving the Vatican for Washington.

Clear support

He issued a statement in Spanish directed at the Latino community, the majority of whom are Roman Catholic.

His comments demonstrate once again that the Church is with the poor, with the immigrants and those who are in need
Carlos Aquino

The German Pope said he would be raising the issue of immigration reform with President Bush and would urge him to push for granting legal status to the illegal immigrants living in the US.

For Carlos Aquino, who heads the Shrine of the Sacred Heart's Youth Ministries, the Pope's words were comforting.

"I think his statement was very clear," said Mr Aquino.

"His comments demonstrate once again that the Church is with the poor, with the immigrants and those who are in need - as well as those 12 million people who are here looking for status or an opportunity.

"I think the Pope is there for them."

Latinos are likely to make up a large part of the 40,000-strong crowd expected to attend the Pope's first open air Mass in the US here in Washington, and they will figure heavily when he moves on to New York this weekend.

Stem the tide

The Pope's other aim on the visit to the US regarding the Latino community is to strengthen the Church's place in the country's fastest growing minority group.

He wants to stem the tide of the hundreds of thousands of Latinos who have left the Church in recent years in search of greater spiritual inspiration from the growing Hispanic evangelical movement.

George Bush and the Pope address crowds at the White House

The sex scandals that hit several US dioceses in recent years also contributed to that exodus of Latino Catholics, and the disaffection of millions more.

It is no surprise, then, that the Pope would want to make a very public statement of contrition over the scandal as he did before he had even landed in Washington.

As for his words of support for the legalisation of the millions of undocumented immigrants living and working in the US, these are not expected to do much more than serve as moral support.

Political debate on the issue is paralysed and not expected to be taken up until the country's new president takes office next January.

In pictures: Pope Benedict in US
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Profile: Pope Benedict XVI
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