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As Francis woos Ecuador, government dissenters await chance to meet the pope

As hundreds of thousands battled the heat and crowds to hear Pope Francis’ first sermon on Spanish-speaking soil Monday, the 78-year-old pontiff used the occasion to defend family unity and promise the faithful that better times were ahead.

“In the heart of the family, no one is rejected,” he said in the port city of Guayaquil. “Everyone is worth the same.”

If Monday’s scene was one of apostolic harmony, Tuesday may give the pope a taste for some of the divisions running through the Ecuadorean family, as he holds a meeting with several hundred members of civil society groups.

While the list of attendees hasn’t been made public, those who claim they are going say they hope to present their reality to the pope.

Jorge Herrera, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, said he planned to tell Francis about what he called the administration’s environmental hypocrisy, which he said had trampled indigenous rights in the name of petroleum and mining concessions.

“We’re hoping that the pope can give (President Rafael) Correa a message that will make him change his ways,” Herrera said. “If that doesn’t work then the change will come through our collective demonstrations.”

Correa has faced weeks of protests that were sparked by his proposal to increase taxes (which have been temporarily pulled), but have evolved to include numerous concerns. Francis’ arrival Sunday has produced something of a truce.

During his sermon Monday, the pontiff seemed to call for unity as he used the story of Jesus turning water into wine during a wedding at Cana in Galilee to talk about the importance of family.

“The family is the nearest hospital, the first school for the young, the best home for the elderly,” he said. “The family constitutes the best social capital. It cannot be replaced by other institutions. It needs to be helped and strengthened lest we lose our proper sense of services, which society as a whole provides.”

The festive crowds, which began gathering in the 2,000-acre Samanes Park before dawn, sang prayed and chanted Francis’ name before his arrival. In what has become a familiar scene, Francis’ motorcade was often rushed by well-wishers as enthusiastic crowds tossed flowers and gifts at the 78-year-old pontiff.

Before the event, the Argentine-born pope made a brief stop at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy. There, he had the crowd laughing when he told them he wasn’t going to charge them anything for giving his blessing. “But I do ask that you please pray for me,” he said. “Will you promise me that?”

Francis, who returned to the capital in the afternoon, was scheduled to meet Monday night with Correa in a visit that church authorities called a matter of “protocol.” On paper, the two South Americans have much in common. Both talk about social justice, the need for income equality and the primacy of the environment.

When the pope arrived here, Correa said this nation of 16 million, which has the Amazon forest and the Galapagos Islands, was “paradise” and that environmental protection was enshrined in the constitution.

Marco Guatemal, the vice president of Ecuarunari, the organization of the Kichwa nationalities of Ecuador, said he fears the pope may leave with a false impression.

Guatemal said the constitution is “abused all the time” as the administration has gone after indigenous leaders who have been trying to defend the environment.

In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found Ecuador responsible for violating the rights of the Kichwa after it allowed oil exploration on their ancestral lands in the Amazon. The government has since apologized to the community and complied with the verdict, but indigenous groups say those who oppose mining and petroleum exploration are often targeted.

“For us, it’s important that the pope listens to us and also, since he agrees with our ideals, we’d like to hear him make a statement about how important it is to defend the earth and the water,” Guatemal said.

Correa has accused indigenous and environmental groups of breaking the law and straying from their missions to play politics.

It was unclear if anyone will have a chance to talk to Francis at length, but several organizations said they hoped to present him with communiques and letters laying out their concerns.

Local media reported that a member of Ecuador’s Association of Radios might also be at the event. Ecuador has some of the most restrictive free-speech policies in the hemisphere, and the administration has successfully sued several news organizations it has accused of unfair criticism.

“President Rafael Correa has enforced the silencing of all those that dissent from the ‘official truth,’” the Inter American Press Association wrote to Francis on Monday. “We hope that your words can inspire changes to the official policy of censorship that is practiced by the government of Ecuador – or, at the very least, ease the suffering of those who cannot fully enjoy their inalienable right to freedom of expression.”

Francis will be offering Mass in Quito on Tuesday before leaving for Bolivia and Paraguay on Wednesday.

This is the first time in three decades that a pope has visited Ecuador, but Francis hinted he may be back.

“May god bless you, and I will pray for each of your families and I ask you to do the same, just as Mary did,” he said at the closing of Monday’s ceremony. “See you next time.”

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