PANAMA CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis will on Thursday (Jan 24) formally open World Youth Day celebrations which have drawn around 200,000 young people from around the world to Panama, where he is expected to defend Central American migrants and human rights.
The 82-year-old pontiff flew to Panama on Wednesday at the start of the five-day visit given over to reaching out to young Catholics.
The Pope will pay a courtesy visit to President Juan Carlos Varela before addressing Central American bishops at the 17th century Saint Francis of Assisi Church.
The Pope's address is likely to focus heavily on the migration afflicting the region, particularly as fresh caravans of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador make their way north through Mexico to the US border.
His speeches and homilies are also expected to touch on poverty, corruption and violence many migrants say they are trying to escape.
The Pope will later join tens of thousands of young people to formally open the Catholic jamboree at a palm-fringed park overlooking Panama Bay.
Even before he arrived in Panama, Pope Francis hit out at what he said was the fear many people had towards migrants.
In response to a reporter's question aboard the papal plane about United States President Donald Trump's plans to build a border wall to keep them out, the Pope said the fear of migrants itself "is making us crazy".
Before starting his trip, the Pope met eight migrants living in Rome.
CHEERED ON ARRIVAL
More than 1,000 pilgrims cheered Pope Francis' arrival at Tocumen airport, waving the starred red, white and blue Panamanian flag and the yellow and white flag of the Vatican.
Looking tired, the Pope acknowledged them with a wave and a smile after slowly descending the steps of his Alitalia plane following a 13-hour flight from Rome.
Tens of thousands cheered and waved as the Pope then made his way on the 30km drive to the Papal Nunciature in Panama City, where he spent the night, a crowd of pilgrims holding a vigil behind security barriers outside.
The car had to swerve sharply at one point when a young man broke through a barrier and ran towards it, waving a Venezuelan flag. The man was quickly detained by security guards.
In crisis-hit Venezuela, opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido had earlier proclaimed himself president with the support of the United States and several other countries - including Panama - setting up a tense stand-off with the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Earlier on Wednesday, Pope Francis announced he would fulfil a long-held desire to visit Japan in November.
Groups of young pilgrims have been flocking to the small Central American country for days.
"He speaks to us youth in a very simple way, and he challenges us to be better Christians, better Catholics and better citizens in our respective countries," said Mr James Murphy, 23, from the Pacific island state of Tonga.
Mr Irving Valiente, a pilgrim from El Salvador, said the meeting with the Pope would be "an injection of faith" for people from migrant countries.
Pope Francis will hold two open-air masses in Panama City. Among the other highlights of his five-day visit will be a trip to the Good Samaritan home for young HIV and Aids patients on Saturday, after the closing mass.
He will also visit a youth detention centre and hear the confessions of inmates, including one serving time for murder.