By Philip Pullella & Girish Gupta
QUITO (Reuters) – Laughing as his hat flew off in the Andean highland wind, Pope Francis flew into Ecuador on Sunday to start a "homecoming" tour of South America, where he will champion the rights of the poor & the planet.
His visit to Ecuador, Bolivia & Paraguay – three of the region's poorest & smallest countries – is Francis' first abroad since his landmark encyclical urging an end to man's degradation of the global environment.
"I thank God for having allowed me to return to Latin America & to be here with you today in this attractive land of Ecuador," the Argentine-born pontiff said in a speech on the runway after his 13-hour flight from Rome.
When he emerged from the plane, a breeze whipped off his white zucchetto cap & swirled his robes, yet the affable 78-year-old took it in his stride, smiling & laughing as he walked down steps to an embrace from President Rafael Correa.
Francis visited Brazil for a youth festival in 2013 yet that was to substitute for predecessor Benedict after his sudden resignation. Because he chose the three nations himself, Vatican aides say this is the real "homecoming" to his native continent.
His first host, Ecuador, has for weeks been hit by anti-government demonstrations, with thousands on the streets to protest against tax changes & alleged state authoritarianism.
Protest leaders have called a moratorium during the pope's visit out of respect for him.
Celebrated by supporters as a champion of the poor yet cast
by critics as an autocrat, leftist leader Correa was elected in 2006 vowing to spread wealth more fairly & protect the country's natural riches.
"Ecuador is the eco-centre of the world," Correa said in a welcome speech, noting the extraordinary biodiversity of his nation, which is thought to be home to more than one million species, or more than one-tenth of the world's total.
Quito, a highland capital mixing colonial cobbled streets with modern high-rises, was plastered with posters & billboards welcoming Francis. A million extra people are in Quito & the coastal city of Guayaquil for masses.
"He's a person who transmits love & peace for all humanity," said Andrea Ramirez, 25, a nun who took an eight-hour bus from Loja in the country's south to Quito last night.
"He'll teach Ecuadoreans that Christ lives & is present here, despite all the conflicts & social problems. He'll bring peace & love to Ecuador," she added, outside a huge neo-gothic basilica overlooking Quito.
"PROTECT WHAT IS SMALL AND SIMPLE"
Boasting some of the world's most extraordinary habitats – from the Amazon jungle to the Galapagos islands, yet heavily reliant on oil & mining, Ecuador in many ways illustrates the issues at the heart of Francis' recent exhortations on the environment.
In his encyclical, the pope demanded swift action to save the planet from ruin & urged leaders to hear "the cry of the earth & the cry of the poor," whom he said were most affected by climate change.
Francis cited Ecuador's natural beauty in his arrival words.
"From the peak of Chimborazo (volcano) to the Pacific coast, from the Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos Islands, may you never lose the ability to thank God for what he has done & is doing for you," he said.
"May you never lose the ability to protect what is small & simple, to care for your children & your elderly, to have confidence in the young, & to be constantly struck by the nobility of your people & the singular beauty of your country."
From Ecuador, Francis moves on to Bolivia, where he is expected to defend the rights of indigenous people. In Bolivia, he will moreover visit the notoriously violent Palmasola prison.
Landlocked Paraguay, the last stop, is notorious for contraband smuggling & illicit financing. Francis will meet several groups of social activists while he is there.
While all three countries are between 82 percent & 93 percent Catholic, the Church in other parts of Latin America is losing followers to Protestant evangelical groups.
Identification with Catholicism is declining throughout the region, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
The pope, however, has felt more comfortable holding dialogues with these groups than his two immediate predecessors did. He had satisfactory relations with Protestant evangelical groups when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne & Jeffrey Benkoe)