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Pope Francis Delights Crowds In Ecuador, Moves On To Boliva


Pope Francis keeps surprising and delighting people on his big tour of South America. The Argentine-born Francis is the first pope from that continent, and he is sure being welcomed as a native son. Among other things, the pope has been praised for honoring indigenous customs and focusing on society's outcasts. John Otis reports from Ecuador.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Pope Francis has spent the past three days here in Ecuador, where he's turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. He hugs everyone he can and poses for selfies. At religious ceremonies, he makes a special effort to connect with average folks.

On Monday, he drew an estimated 1 million people to Mass in the Pacific port city of Guayaquil. He celebrated another big outdoor Mass yesterday in Quito, the capital. Ecuador and Bolivia both have large indigenous populations. So in Quito, Francis wore robes embroidered with indigenous symbols.


POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Quechua).

OTIS: Part of the Mass was delivered in the local Quechua language.

Another tradition could help Francis in Bolivia. The 78-year-old pontiff suffers at high altitudes, but later today he'll be flying into La Paz, the highest capital in the world. He's made a special request, said Bolivian culture minister Marko Machicao.

MARKO MACHICAO: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "The holy father has asked to chew coca," he said. Coca leaves are the main ingredient in cocaine. Chewing them is legal in Bolivia. It's also a local remedy for altitude sickness. Such gestures should play well in Bolivia, where the Church has a mixed reputation. To some, it's a reminder of Spanish conquistadors who often imposed Catholicism.

EDUARDO GAMARRA: The Catholic Church in particular is, you know, really one of the greatest symbols of colonial exploitations of the indigenous.

OTIS: Eduardo Gamarra is a Bolivian professor at Florida International University. Until recently, he said, Bolivia's most prominent Church critic was President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian. But Morales likes Pope Francis due to his efforts to fight poverty and reform the Church.

GAMARRA: It's kind of contradictory right now because he's now saying, well, this is - you know, this is the Pope, this is the Church, and we have great relations with them.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

OTIS: Francis used to minister to poor neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. As pope, he's now winning fans and converts with his calls to end class divisions and social exclusion, a theme he revisited at yesterday's Mass.


FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "Jesus prays that we all form one big family in which God is the father and all of us are brothers and sisters," Francis said. "No one is excluded."

Last on the pope's itinerary is Paraguay, where one of his main events this weekend will be meeting with residents of a riverside slum. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Guayaquil, Ecuador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.