Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Mexico Friday as tens of thousands in the world's largest Roman Catholic country lined up along the streets to greet him with cheers and tears. He encouraged the nation and the church to fight the evils of drugs, violence and idolatry of money.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon and first lady Margarita Zavala received the pope at the Guanajuato International Airport, where he landed Friday to begin his first visit to Mexico and Cuba. "Your visit fills us with joy in moments of great tribulation," Calderon said as he welcomed the pope.
"This is a proud country of hospitality, and nobody feels like a stranger in your land," The Associated Press quoted the pope as saying upon landing. "I knew that, now I see it and now I feel it in my heart."
The German pope's visit was compared to that of his Polish predecessor John Paul's in 1979, the first-ever by a pope and at a time when the country had highly repressive anti-religion laws in place. To the surprise of many, Pope Benedict's arrival drew as much excitement as John Paul II received.
As Pope Benedict headed to Leon, where he will stay during his three-day visit, crowds lined more than 20 miles through the route from the airport, shouting, "Benedict, brother, you are now Mexican!"
Talking about Mexico's drug war that has caused the deaths of 50,000 people in five years, the pope said, "The great responsibility of the church is to educate the conscience, teach moral responsibility and strip off the mask [from] the idolatry of money that enslaves mankind, and unmask the false promise, this lie that is behind."
On board his Alitalia flight, Pope Benedict told reporters he was praying for all in need "particularly those who suffer because of old and new rivalries, resentments and all forms of violence."
"We must do whatever is possible to combat this destructive evil against humanity and our youth," the pope was quoted as saying. "One sees in Latin America and also elsewhere, not a few Catholics who have a schizophrenia between individual and public morality. These individuals are Catholic, believers, but in their public lives they follow other paths that don't correspond to the great values of the Gospel … so we must teach not just in individual morals but public morals."
The pontiff, who will turn 85 next month, added that he was coming to Mexico as a pilgrim of hope, to encourage the people to "transform the present structures and events which are less than satisfactory and seem immovable or insurmountable while also helping those who do not see meaning or a future in life."
He also called on Cuba to move towards democracy from a Marxism that "no longer responds to reality."
A day before the pope's arrival, a large Protestant church in Leon sought to raise the issue of growing religious divisions in the country, according to Reuters. The church held a service, prominently displaying a sign that read "We are not Roman Catholics."