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July 26, 2013

Pope Francis visits slum, scolds Brazil's leaders

RIO DE JANEIRO — Pope Francis waded into the heart of Brazil’s troubles yesterday, telling residents of a notorious slum that their leaders must do a better job of helping them.

The potentially provocative comments by the first pope from the Americas were in keeping with the causes he holds most dear: social justice and reaching out to the poor.

“No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!” Francis told a rain-soaked crowd in the Varginha favela, or slum, which had been spruced up with new electrical cables and fresh asphalt. Yet ruins of shanty-type housing hulked a few yards away, and drug traffickers’ graffiti kept reappearing under the noses of military police.

Public authorities, the pope said to enthusiastic applause, and “those in possession of greater resources” must “never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity!”

It was the most political message yet in the pope’s pilgrimage to Brazil, and for many it echoed the enormous protests that erupted last month among Brazilians angry over government corruption, excessive state spending on upcoming international sports events, and lack of basic services such as education and health care.

Venturing into the favela was probably the trickiest event in the pope’s week in Brazil, his first overseas trip since his election in March — one that has brought him back to his native continent.

Security, already frayed by Francis’ tendency to ignore restrictive rules, and logistics were complicated. The recently paved streets inside the favela are narrow; large parts of the slum are essentially in ruins; and the crowds, while perhaps admiring of the pope, are unpredictable.

But the visit appeared to go off without major hitches.

Varginha, a slum so poor and violent that it’s sometimes referred to as the Gaza Strip, has benefited from small improvements aimed at stanching social unrest. But the pope seemed to be saying that such government efforts were not enough.

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