MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Pope Francis called on Filipinos to reject the corruption that has plagued this Asian nation for decades and urged them to instead work to end the “scandalous” poverty and social injustices that afflicts its people, encouraging the government to continue the first significant crackdown on high-level corruption since the fall of the Marcos regime three decades ago.
Francis made the comments during a speech to President Benigno Aquino III and other Filipino authorities at the start of his four-day visit to Asia’s largest Catholic nation where nearly a quarter of its people lives in poverty. The visit was already remarkable for the unprecedented level of security for a pope who relishes getting close to the crowds.
Corruption has been rampant in the Philippines ever since the 20-year rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who along with his shoe-loving widow and cronies were suspected of stealing between $5 billion and $10 billion before losing power in 1986.
The problem has festered amid a culture of impunity among powerful politicians and their allies, weak law enforcement and a notoriously slow justice system. But Aquino won the presidency by a wide margin in 2010 on promises to rid the nation of corruption and poverty. Since then, Congress has begun investigating high-level politicians for corruption and three senators have been detained.
Francis told the gathering in the presidential palace that more than ever today, political leaders must be “outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good.” He said they must hear the cries of the poor and address the “glaring and indeed scandalous social inequalities” in society.
He challenged Filipinos “at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor, and to make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child in the life of the community.”
Francis’ message will likely resonate in a country where, according to government statistics, nearly a quarter of the Philippines’ 100 million people live on just over $1 a day. And indeed, tens of thousands of people poured into Manila’s streets to catch a glimpse of Francis under the most intense security of his two-year pontificate.
Cell phone reception was jammed, a huge police presence guarded him and streets leading to Francis’ motorcade route were blocked as the pope travelled around town in his open-sided popemobile and a simple four-door Volkswagen. Francis is particularly beloved here because of his personal simplicity and message of caring for the poor.
After his speech, Francis celebrated Mass in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral and was to meet with Filipino families in the late afternoon.
On Saturday he travels to the central Philippines to comfort survivors of the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 dead and missing and leveled entire villages.
The government has declared national holidays during the pope’s visit, which runs through Monday, and the crowds responded by turning out in force to welcome him. Francis was clearly energized by the raucous welcome, stopping several times Friday to kiss children brought up to him once he entered the presidential palace grounds. His motorcades didn’t stop along the route, though, for him to get out to and greet the crowd as he likes to do.
Francis has long insisted on a reduced security detail so that he can get close to the crowds, eschewing the bulletproof popemobile his predecessors used on foreign trips in favor of an open-sided car.
It remains to be seen if he will chafe at the intense security provided by Philippine authorities, who appeared to leave nothing to chance. They have good reason to go overboard after Pope Paul VI was slightly wounded in an assassination attempt during his visit in 1970 and St. John Paul II was the target of militants whose plot was uncovered days before his 1995 arrival.
About 50,000 policemen and troops were deployed to secure the pope in a country where relatively small numbers of al-Qaida-inspired militants remain a threat in the south despite more than a decade of U.S.-backed military offensives.
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