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Pope wrapping up contentious, restive trip to Latin America

Pope Francis
The Associated Press

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Pope Francis is wrapping up the most contested, violent trip of his papacy Sunday with a series of meetings with Peruvian church leaders and a final Mass at an air base in Peru’s capital.

The Mass is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of Peruvian faithful before his departure to Rome — a potentially stark contrast to the pontiff’s send-off from Chile, where his final homily drew thousands less than anticipated and thin crowds lined the streets to wave goodbye.

“Hopefully early tomorrow, myself and all of Peru will get a chance to see him up close,” said Nicolas Astete, one of more than 3,000 people who gathered Saturday night outside the Apostolic Nunciature in Lima, hoping to see a glimpse of the pope before he retired for the evening.

“Come here!” the crowds cried as Francis made his way to the papal embassy.

Despite the thunderous welcome the pontiff has received throughout his trip to Peru, the uproar over the Catholic Church’s handling of a clerical sex abuse scandal in Chile and Francis’ own remarks on the case have continued to cast a shadow over the visit. All ears will be tuned in Sunday to any final words Francis might share on a crisis he had hoped to help mend in a visit to usually friendly Latin American turf.

During his seven-day trip Chile and Peru Francis personally apologized to survivors of priests who sexually abused them, traveled deep into the Amazon to meet with indigenous leaders, decried the scourge of corruption and violence against women in Latin America and urged the Chilean government and radical Mapuche factions to peacefully resolve one of the region’s longest-running disputes.

But the pope also attracted unprecedented rejection: At least a dozen churches across Chile were set aflame and riot police shot tear gas and arrested protesters who tried marching in on Mass in Santiago.

Francis stirred outrage when he accused victims of Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest of slander. The 81-year-old Argentine said that until he sees proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up any crimes, accusations of complicity by the victims of against Barros are “all calumny.”

That remark prompted even Francis’ top adviser on clerical abuse to issue a stunning criticism of the pontiff, calling his words a “source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse.”

The rebuke Saturday came as Francis was consoling Peruvians in a coastal northern city hard hit by El Nino floods that left more than 150 dead nationwide last year. During Francis’ three days in Peru he has also tackled heavy social issues, calling on corporations to stop exploitative drilling in the Amazon, for governments to recognize indigenous people and for greater transparency in politics.

Francis will conclude his trip by visiting some of Lima’s holiest sites.

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Associated Press video journalist Cesar Barreto contributed to this report.

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