Brazil protesters hope for Pope’s backing during visit

Young Brazilians who marched in June to demand more funding for health and education are hoping Pope Francis will back their cause

READY FOR POPE FRANCIS. Scene in a church at a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 14, 2013, where Pope Francis is due to celebrate mass during his upcoming visit next July 22 to 28. AFP PHOTO / Vanderlei Almeida

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Young Brazilians who marched in June to demand more funding for health and education are hoping Pope Francis will back their cause when he visits Rio next week.

But organizers ruled out a resumption of the street protests during the pontiff’s week-long stay to attend World Youth Day (WYD), a major Catholic gathering expected to draw 1.5 million people.

The nationwide demonstrations “had a social character, and to protest for more justice and an end to corruption and abuses are precepts of the Gospel,” said Tanat Resende, a 22-year-old law student who took part in last month’s massive protests.

In the largest protests the country had seen in two decades, demonstrators demanded upgrades to public transport, health and education and criticized the billions of dollars being spent on the 2014 World Cup and other sporting events.

They also called for an end to what they view as rampant corruption under the leftist government of President Dilma Rousseff.

“It is perfectly reasonable to expect the pope to support these causes,” said Resende, adding that the visit was unlikely to spark fresh protests.

The pontiff in March explained that he chose his name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th century Italian friar who was “a man of peace, a man of poverty,” to signal that he wanted “a church of the poor, for the poor.”

“Pope Francis is a very simple man, very aware of the social context, and I would not be surprised if he were to make references to the street protests,” said Benjamin Paz Vermal, a spokesman for WYD.

The pontiff has already ordered measures to combat Vatican corruption, setting up a committee to investigate the Vatican bank, and is said to be planning a major shake-up of the scandal-ridden institution.

Italian police last month arrested a senior cleric on suspicion of money laundering and fraud for allegedly plotting to smuggle millions of euros into Italy.

“The pope’s anti-corruption stance will help us to step up the fight against corruption and poverty,” said Natalia Pinto, a 21-year-old Catholic who also took part in the June protests.

“The pope is coming to Brazil at the right time,” Ivan Esperanza Rocha, a religion expert at the University of Sao Paulo, said, referring to the popular demands for more justice, equality resources for health and education.

So far the only demonstrations planned via social media networks are those by gay rights and feminist activists.

A so-called “beijaco” — in which gay couples kiss each other on the lips — is scheduled during the pope’s speech on Copacabana beach July 25.

And feminists are to hold a “Slut Walk” in Rio on July 27 to protest sexual violence against women.

“The papal visit is a more delicate issue because Brazil is a very Catholic country. People feel that it is different from the World Cup or the (2016) Olympic Games,” said 29-year-old Mario Campagnani, a member of one the main groups that sponsored the June protests.

According to official figures, nearly 65 percent of Brazil’s 194 million people identify themselves as Catholics.

The emeritus archbishop of Sao Paulo, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, said earlier this month that Pope Francis was not worried by Brazil’s social unrest because the demands have nothing to do with his visit.

And the country’s 300 bishops have lent their support to the protesters’ demands.

The costs of hosting the WYD, the second held in Latin America, are estimated at between $145 and $160 million, including $53 million paid from public coffers, according to press reports.

Sao Paulo Archbishop Odilo Scherer said it would be “unthinkable” to stage the event without official support.

“The costs are mostly borne by the participants, who pay their travel expenses, and by local groups and sponsors,” he noted.

“The pope is not only a religious leader but the head of the Vatican and as such he should receive the same treatment as other heads of state,” he added.

As to the public money earmarked for the event, “it is injected in Brazil, it generates taxes, work,” Scherer said. –

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