RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 23 – Pope Francis got a rapturous welcome from tens of thousands of pilgrims on Monday as he arrived in Brazil on his first foreign trip as pontiff, but violent protests later swept the streets.
The 76-year-old Argentine rode in an open-top jeep through the centre of Rio de Janeiro, kicking off a week-long visit to a country whose Catholic numbers are slipping and in which economic progress has recently been joined by social unrest.
Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, was cheered by throngs of the faithful, but police used tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades to disperse scores of rioters hurling firebombs after the Catholic leader met with President Dilma Rousseff at the state governor’s palace.
AFP photographer Yasuyoshi Chiba, who was capturing the confrontation, was clubbed on the head by a riot policeman and suffered heavy bleeding.
The 42-year-old Japanese national was hospitalized and received three stitches before tests determined he was in a satisfactory condition.
Earlier police blocked access to the palace as hundreds of Anonymous “hacktivists” and gay militants rallied to denounce Rio state Governor Sergio Cabral’s policies as well as the $53 million spent on the pope’s landmark visit to what remains the world’s most populous Catholic nation.
“Go away Cabral, go away Dilma,” the demonstrators chanted while a huge banner read: “Down with the fascist state and its anti-people governments.”
Rousseff’s popularity has plunged amid frustrations with corruption, poor public services and slowing economic growth. The leftist and Brazil’s first female president acknowledged the social discontent, saying Brazil’s youth was fighting for “a new society.”
After massive protests spiralled into violence in recent weeks, authorities are keen to ensure an incident-free visit for the pontiff, who will attend World Youth Day – an event initiated in 1985 by Pope John Paul II – which officially kicks off Tuesday and is expected to attract 1.5 million young Roman Catholics.
Despite the heavy security, with 30,000 soldiers and police mobilized, several people were able to stop the pope’s convoy and touch him through his open window. The pontiff shook hands and kissed babies.
The threat of danger was heightened when the army announced that soldiers had discovered an explosive device during a training session on Sunday in a bathroom at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Sao Paulo state, which the pope will visit on Wednesday.
The homemade device was destroyed and authorities said it was nowhere near the area where the pope or pilgrims will congregate.