MANILA (REUTERS) – Pope Francis called on the Philippine government on Friday to tackle corruption and hear the cries of the poor suffering from “scandalous social inequalities” in Asia’s most Catholic country.
The pope, who arrived on Thursday night, went to the Malacanang presidential palace on Friday for an official welcoming ceremony led by President Benigno Aquino as tens of thousands of ecstatic Filipinos lined the streets.
After a private meeting with the president, Francis, a champion of the poor, pulled no punches in calling for a more just and caring society in the Philippines, which is about 80 percent Catholic.
“It is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good,” he said.
Aquino, the only son of democracy champion and former president Corazon Aquino, took office in 2010 on the promise of transparency, good governance and battling corruption to lift the Philippines from poverty.
But he has struggled to shed the country’s image as one of the most corrupt in Asia as he continues to defend his allies, while at the same time chasing down politicians, bureaucrats and generals associated with the past administration.
Francis was driven to the palace from his residence at the Vatican embassy in a small blue Volkswagen Touran, in keeping with his simple, no-frills style.
Enthusiastic crowds had started gathering four hours before he arrived. The Philippines has laid on the largest security operation in its history, with about 50,000 police and soldiers on hand.
His car was flanked by police vehicles, which sometimes made it difficult for people to see him. Francis was saluted by presidential guards at the Spanish colonial palace and greeted by hundreds of people waving Vatican and Philippine flags.
Children rushed up to embrace him as he walked along a red carpet on the palace grounds.
The pope urged government officials “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”.
Since taking office, Aquino has executed wide-ranging reforms in graft-laden agencies such as the customs and internal revenue bureaus, helping improve the Philippines’ ranking in watchdog Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index (CPI) to 85 last year from 94 in 2013 and 105 in 2012.
But cases of high-level officials in central and local governments misappropriating public funds for personal gain still abound.
At least 25 per cent of the country of about 100 million are poor, according to the Philippine statistics agency.
“The great Biblical tradition enjoins on all peoples the duty to hear the voice of the poor,” he told Filipino leaders.
“It bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities. Reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart,” he said.
Francis was due to celebrate a Mass later on Friday in Manila’s colonial-style cathedral, on the same site where a first church was built with bamboo and palm leaves in 1581.
That was to be followed by a rally with Filipino families.
Divided families are big issue in the Philippines, where as many as 12 million people have left to find work in other countries, making it the fourth-largest recipient of remittances worldwide.
About half of population have been affected by labour migration and the strain of decades of labour migration has come at a significant social cost. Francis has made defence of vulnerable migrants and workers a central issue of his papacy.
At an October synod on the family, he urged bishops to find solutions to the challenges faced daily by families.