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PHILIPPINES

Pope Francis addresses six million at Mass in Manila

Ted Aljibe, AFP | Pope Francis greets worshippers as he arrives to celebrate a mass at a park in Manila on January 18, 2015

Pope Francis delivered an open-air Mass before an estimated six million people in the Philippine capital of Manila on Sunday, appealing to the world to “learn how to cry” over the plight of the poor and homeless or abused children.

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City officials said some six million people were in Manila’s Rizal Park and more gathered in surrounding areas to witness the Mass that wraps up Pope Francis’s week-long trip to Asia.

The 78-year-old pope, wearing a transparent yellow poncho over his usual white cassock to keep off the rain, was driven through the ecstatic crowd in a modified jeepney, the most popular mode of transport in the Philippines.

He stopped often along the route to kiss children and bless religious statues on the day the Philippines celebrates the feast of the infant Jesus. The faithful, many also wearing ponchos, held up rosaries as he passed by.

Some people in the capital of Asia’s only predominantly Catholic country had waited through the night for the gates to open at dawn. They opened nine hours before the start of the Mass, which was due to last nearly three hours.

The crowd surpassed the five million who flocked to a Mass by Pope John Paul in the Philippines 20 years ago.

In his homily, the Pope urged Filipinos to shun “social structures which perpetuate poverty, ignorance and corruption”, a theme he stressed when he held talks with President Benigno Aquino on Friday. Aquino also attended the Mass.

Francis also took a swipe at the government’s population-control efforts, saying the family was under threat from “insidious attacks and programmes contrary to all that we hold true and sacred”.

The Pope also spoke of the need to defend children, saying: “We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected. And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to life on the streets.”

Street children

The Pope’s last full day in the country began with an emotional youth gathering at a Catholic university in Manila, where he was moved by a question posed by a 12-year-old girl who had been abandoned.

“Many children are abandoned by their parents. Many of them became victims and bad things have happened to them, like drug addiction and prostitution. Why does God allow this to happen, even if the children are not at fault? Why is it that only a few people help us?” the girl, Glyzelle Iris Palomar, asked him.

The girl, who was rescued and found shelter in a Church-run community, broke down in tears and could not finish her prepared welcome. The Pope hugged her and later put aside most of his own prepared speech to respond.

“She is the only one who has put forward a question for which there is no answer and she was not even able to express it in words but rather in tears,” he said, visibly moved.

“Why do children suffer?” the Argentine Pope said, speaking in his native Spanish. An aide translated his words into English for the crowd of about 30,000 young people on the grounds of the Church-run university.

“I invite each one of you to ask yourselves, ‘Have I learned how to weep ... when I see a hungry child, a child on the street who uses drugs, a homeless child, an abandoned child, an abused child, a child that society uses as a slave?'” he said.

Children can be seen living on the streets of Manila, as they often do in many poor Asian countries, surviving by begging and picking through garbage in vast dumps.

The United Nations says 1.2 million children live on the streets in the Philippines. According to the Child Protection Network Foundation, 35.1 percent of children were living in poverty in 2009, the last year such data was available. Nearly 33 percent of Filipinos live in slums.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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