Pope Francis has called on people across Latin America to turn to their Christian roots to resolve differences, as he led a mass for nearly one million people in the Ecuadorean capital Quito.

The leader of the Catholic church said that in a world divided by wars, violence and individualism, Catholics should be "builders of unity," bringing together the hopes and ideals of their people.

In his homily, the Argentine pontiff also praised the conviction and strength in the "cry for freedom" during the region's independence struggle from European powers 200 years ago.

History tells us that it only made headway once personal differences were set aside.

Pope Francis

"But history tells us that it only made headway once personal differences were set aside," the Pope told the crowd gathered at Quito's Bicentenario Park, against the backdrop of the Andean mountains on his third day in Ecuador.

While the drop-off in Spanish-speaking Latin America has not been as sharp as it has been in Brazil, it is notable.

About 95 percent of Ecuador's population was Catholic in 1970; today the figure is down to 79 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Francis has called for the church to return to being a missionary organisation that looks out particularly for society's poorest and most marginal.

"Evangelization doesn't consist in proselytizing, but in attracting by our witness to those who are far off, in humbly drawing near to those who feel distant from God and the church, those who are fearful or indifferent," Francis told the crowd.

"Proselytism is a caricature of evangelization."

Francis arrived at the park to cheers from hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom had camped out overnight under the rain to score a good spot.


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But the sun broke out as Francis arrived on his popemobile to do a tour through the grounds, with fans tossing confetti on him as he zoomed by.

Isabel Pavon, 55, came with her two small children, a boy and a girl, who held up small wooden crosses.

"It is such a joy to be here," she said, pressed up against a security fence. "He is our pope, the pope of the people."

Pope John Paul II arrived at the same Bicentenario Park when it was an airport 30 years ago.

Criticism 

Not everybody in Ecuador has been happy with the pope's visit, with some have accusing the church of curbing progress on women's and gay rights in a traditionally macho region.

Pope Francis: Reform or Modernisation?

"It's not good that the Church has so much weight in political decisions," said Andres Caicedo, 35, spokesman for the Ecuadorean Atheist Association.

"It's also inappropriate that in a country that is supposedly secular, we spend so much money on such a visit."

The pope's visit also comes at a time of political protests against President Rarafael Correa, leader of Ecuador, a socialist nation of 15 million people.

But his presence has brought a temporary halt to demonstrations.

Making his first trip abroad since he released his landmark encyclical last month on defending the poor and the planet, the pope was due to address university students and civil groups on Tuesday night.

Francis flies on Wednesday to La Paz, Bolivia, another highland city where oxygen tanks are kept at the airport for arriving passengers who may struggle with the thin air.

The Bolivia visit will focus attention on the 78-year-old pope's health as he had part of one lung removed when he was younger after an infection that almost took his life. The last leg of his trip is Paraguay.

Source: Agencies