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story.lead_photo.caption Representatives of Peru’s indigenous peoples attend a speech by Pope Francis on Friday in Puerto Maldonado in which the pope called the natives the custodians of “our common home.”

PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru -- Pope Francis traveled deep into the Amazon rain forest Friday to demand an end to the relentless exploitation of its timber, gas and gold and recognition of its indigenous peoples as the primary custodians to determine the future of "our common home."

Speaking to a coliseum filled with indigenous men, women and children, Francis declared the Amazon the "heart of the church" and called for a threefold defense of its life, land and cultures.

Francis warned that indigenous peoples are now more threatened than ever before and said it was "essential" for governments and other institutions to consider tribes as legitimate partners when negotiating development and conservation projects. The first Latin American pope said their rights, cultures, languages and traditions must be respected and recovered.

"You are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us all: the protection of our common home," the pope said to applause, wailing horns and beating drums from the crowd.

"Papa Francisco!" people chanted later. "The jungle is with you!"

After his speech, an indigenous man in a wheelchair who was left paralyzed from the waist down after being shot by police during a protest placed a headdress of red and yellow feathers on the pope's head and a necklace of native beads around his neck.

Thousands of indigenous men, women and children had traveled through the jungle by boat, on foot and in buses and cars to reach Puerto Maldonado, the steamy gateway to the Peruvian Amazon, to participate in what they hoped would be a turning point for the increasingly threatened ecosystem. Though many didn't quite know why Francis was coming, others saw in him a bridge with Peru's government to resolve long-standing issues such as land rights.

"His desire to be with us signals an historic reconciliation with the Amazon's indigenous communities," said Edwin Vasquez, an indigenous leader. "We consider it a good step forward."

Francis' trip to the Amazon comes as the expansion of illegal gold mining and farming as well as new roads and dams have turned thousands of acres of once lush green forest into barren, contaminated wasteland. Francis has previously called on world leaders to protect the Amazon, likening it to one of the "lungs of our planet."

He is also using the trip to set the stage for a big church meeting next year on the Amazon and the native peoples who reside there.

Before Francis' speech, Hector Sueyo, a member of the indigenous Harakbut people, told the pontiff that native peoples are worried about the Amazon as they watch trees disappear, fish die and rivers become contaminated.

"The sky is angry and is crying because we are destroying the planet," he said.

The pontiff's warm reception in Puerto Maldonado, where he was greeted by singing children and people who ran alongside his motorcade with Vatican-colored yellow and white balloons, was a stark contrast to the pope's visit to Chile earlier in the week, where his visit provoked protests and drew smaller crowds to greet him.

In another meeting Friday, Francis denounced the sexual enslavement of women who are trafficked and forced into prostitution, saying the region's "machismo" culture cannot continue. Many women work as prostitutes in the Amazon's bars, servicing clients who often work in gold mines and other extraction industries that are polluting the Amazon's rivers, destroying its forests and upsetting its delicate ecosystem.

Francis denounced the "false gods" of the gold rush Friday, saying these "idols of avarice, money and power" corrupt people and institutions and ruin the forest.

The pope also made a reference to sterilization, a topic that still haunts many Peruvians. During the government of former President Alberto Fujimori, a health program officials said would help reduce poverty sterilized more than 300,000 women -- many from poor indigenous communities. More than 2,000 women later complained they had been forcibly sterilized.

Fujimori was never charged, though he did end up behind bars for other crimes, including corruption and authorizing death squads during his rule. He was recently pardoned from a 25-year prison sentence, setting off protests around Peru.

Francis tucked the remarks into a footnote in his speech, perhaps knowing they would be politically sensitive in Peru. Francis has in the past used footnotes as a way to make important but contentious points that, for whatever diplomatic or theological reason, couldn't be included in his official texts.

The Amazon's native peoples hail from some 350 indigenous groups, some of whom live in voluntary isolation. In the centuries after Spanish colonization, most traces of native spiritual beliefs were lost as missionaries converted indigenous Peruvians to Catholicism.

The Catholic Church still maintains a strong presence in the region, though these days few indigenous men and women go to Mass and most identify as evangelicals, said Lizardo Cauper, president of the Amazon's largest indigenous organization.

A Section on 01/20/2018

Print Headline: Pope calls the Amazon 'heart of church'

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