Pope Francis supports peace in Philippines Muslim south

Pope Francis has expressed support for the peace process in the Philippines’ Muslim south while calling for the eradication of corruption in the first speech of his visit to Asia’s most populous Catholic nation.

The pontiff blessed children along the route to the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, where he arrived shortly after 9 a.m. (0100GMT) Friday to be welcomed by President Benigno Aquino III, his cabinet and other officials.

“I express my trust that the progress made in bringing peace to the south of the country will result in just solutions in accord with the nation’s founding principles and respectful of the inalienable rights of all, including the indigenous peoples and religious minorities,” the pontiff said.

Hailing the government’s efforts to start dialogue among nationals from different religious backgrounds, he stressed, “I am confident that the praiseworthy efforts to promote dialogue and cooperation between the followers of the different religions will prove fruitful in the pursuit of this noble goal.”

Prior to Francis’ arrival, Muslim figures from country’s one-time largest rebel group — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front — and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process had expressed optimism that the visit would contribute to efforts in the south.

In March 2014, the Front inked a peace deal with the government which brings to an end 17 years of negotiations and a decades-old armed conflict in Mindanao, the country’s second largest island, while granting Muslims greater political autonomy.

On Friday, Pope Francis also spoke lengthily on the Christian mission to care for and learn from the poor, at one point even expounding on how poverty may be eradicated.

“I hope this will challenge everyone at all levels of society to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor.”

He reminded the government officials in the audience: “Reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart.”

Aquino, meanwhile, took a swipe at members of the Catholic Church in his speech for not taking a stand against the abuses of the previous administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is currently in hospital detention on charges of plunder.

“Hence, there was a true test of faith when many members of the Church, once advocates for the poor, the marginalized, and the helpless, suddenly became silent in the face of the previous administration’s abuses,” he said.

Arroyo was arrested for the second time in 2012 on charges of misusing $8.8 million in funds from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

In 2012, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index listed the Philippines among the most corrupt countries in the world, giving it a score of 34 out of 100 and ranking it in 105th place among 176 countries.

The Philippines’ standing on the index has been showing improvement after being ranked 129 in 2011 and 134 the year before.

The first papal speech has already received commendation from Filipino youth leaders, who hailed Francis for “speaking truth to power” in confronting the issue of corruption.

Einstein Recedes, Student Christian Movement of the Philippines spokesperson, said in a statement, “We laud and thank Pope Francis for speaking truth to power. Amidst a sea of plunderers and traitors to the nation, he taught us how to truly care for the nation and the people.”

“The Pope’s valiant move to speak to the almost-inexistent conscience of the top officials of our nation endears us even more to him. President Aquino and his Cabinet should listen and be humbled,” Recedes added.

From the Malacanang palace, Pope Francis proceeded to the Manila Cathedral to celebrate his first mass in the Philippines, blessing the attendees in wheelchairs one-by-one, according to local media reports.

“Do you love me?” he asked in his sermon, eliciting a loud “yes” from the audience, followed by laughter once he responded, “Thank you very much.”

He told the priests and nuns who had traveled from across the country, “As ambassadors of Christ, all of us should be first to welcome his reconciling grace in our hearts… we should be the first to examine our conscience, acknowledge our sins.”

In the evening, the pontiff is scheduled to meet selected families from across the country at the capital’s Mall of Asia, before flying to central Leyte province’s Tacloban City, where he will “break bread” with survivors of 2013’s deadly Typhoon Yolanda.

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