Pope readies trip to simmering Brazil

Pope Francis travels to Brazil later this month on his first foreign visit as pontiff, to a country riven by social tensions and with the highest number of Catholics in the world.

On July 22, he will fly into an emerging economic powerhouse in tumult following sometimes violent protests against corruption, the poor public services and the glaring gulf between rich and poor.

The 76-year-old Argentinian, Latin America's first pope, has proved popular thanks to his humble manner, personal touch and reformist views.

Doctrinally however, he remains a conservative and has yet to implement major changes.

A son of Italian immigrants, Francis knows the problems and injustices of the region well. He is not concerned about possible demonstrations, his friend the archbishop emeritus of Sao Paulo, Claudio Hummes, said recently.

The visit, which wraps up on July 28, is centred on World Youth Day -- a Catholic festival held every two years in a different city.

The pope will visit a favela shantytown, a hospital and the Marian sanctuary of Aparecida on the road between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

More than two million people are expected at the youth event.

It has taken on added significance after the shock resignation of Benedict XVI in February and the election of Buenos Aires archbishop Jorge Bergoglio to replace him.

Bergoglio chose the papal name of Francis after St Francis of Assisi, a mediaeval Italian saint known for his closeness to the poor.

He has called for a "poor Church for the poor", denouncing the "tyranny of money" and the "globalisation of indifference" against refugees.

"I think he will continue, deepen and illustrate his social preaching in Brazil," Marco Politi, a Vatican expert, told AFP.

"Since his election, he has denounced new forms of slavery, exploitation, inequality and the irresponsibility of certain social forces," he said.

Francis, the first non-European pope in seven centuries, has rejected the pomp of the Vatican. He has also turned down banquets with Brazilian officials, preferring to meet young people and local priests.

The pontiff has spoken out in favour of creating a youthful, more vibrant Church. Two days after his election, he called on the world's cardinals to pass on their wisdom to the young "like good wine that gets better over the years."

With its 123.3 million faithful, Brazil is the most Catholic country in the world -- although the Catholic Church faces growing competition from the evangelicals who now account for 22.2 percent of the population.

"We will see if he follows protocol of not, if he avoids traditional welcome speeches with officials. These will be signals," Politi said.

The Vatican expert said he did not exclude a grand reconciliation with Liberation Theology, a social movement in Latin America Catholicism that was severely criticised by late pope John Paul II for being too leftist.

Francis, said Politi, is a representative of "Popular Theology, which is neither Marxist nor politicised but denounces with force the horrors of poverty, inequality and economic mechanisms".