'Slum pope' tells slum residents not to lose hope

By Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, July 25 2013 10:33 a.m. MDT

Francis' open-air car was mobbed on a few occasions as he headed into Varghina's streets lined with brick shacks, but he never seemed in danger. In fact he was showered with gifts as he walked down one of the slum's main drags without an umbrella to shield him from the constant rain. A well-wisher gave him a paper lei, or necklace, hung around his neck, and he held up a scarf from his favorite soccer team, Buenos Aires' San Lorenzo, that was offered to him.

"Events like this, with the pope and all the local media, get everyone so excited," said Antonieta de Souza Costa, a 56-year-old vendor and resident of Varginha. "I think this visit is going to bring people back to the Catholic Church."

In the last two decades, the church has lost legions of faithful in the country, most of them poorer Brazilians who have switched to Pentecostal evangelical congregations with a huge presence in Varginha and most other slums.

The Varginha slum butts up against what until about six months back was the largest "cracolandia" — crackland — in Brazil, where hundreds of crack cocaine users gathered under a train overpass and used the drug openly night and day. Crumbling brittle shacks still give the area a bombed-out feel.

However, the slum on Thursday was buzzing with excitement. Some 200 schoolchildren held blue-and-white balloons and construction-paper flags of yellow and green, Brazil's national colors. Every time a police helicopter buzzed overhead, the kids screamed with delight, their shrill high voices drowning out all other noises.

"I'm super-excited to see the pope. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity!" Antonio Sousa, a 28-year-old slum resident, shouted over the din of the crowd packing the street. Sousa held aloft a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary covered in plastic to protect it from the cold rain falling on Rio.

Security was tight: In addition to the police helicopters, sharpshooters perched atop buildings, metal barricades held the ecstatic crowd at bay on the street and police officers were posted every five feet (2 meters).

Varginha is one of the smallest of Rio's more than 1,000 slums, a triangle-shaped chunk of flat, dusty land sitting between two putrid waterways full of raw sewage. On the third side runs a busy main road with an elevated commuter train that noisily rolls by overhead.

The slum's surroundings somewhat ease security concerns, with the waterways acting as natural boundaries and only two roads 300 yards (meters) apart from one another allowing access.

Police invaded the slum in January and pushed out a heavily armed drug gang known as the Red Command, then set up a permanent police post in the area, which had seen virtually no government presence for decades.

The citywide pacification program started in 2008 to secure Rio de Janeiro before it hosts the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics.

There are now 33 permanent police posts set up in Rio in communities with 1.5 million people.

Francis started Thursday by receiving the keys to the city and blessing the Olympic flag, joining a long list of popes who have touted the positive role sport can play in society.

Francis also greeted some of Brazil's Olympic athletes during a brief visit to Rio's City Palace.

On the eve of the London Olympics, then-Pope Benedict XVI issued a message saying he hoped the 2012 Games would help promote peace and friendship. Pope John XXIII greeted Olympians in Rome for the 1960 Games.

Bradley Brooks contributed to this report.

Nicole Winfield on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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