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Pope Francis defends 'slum priests'

On his first anniversary, the pope denies that his advocacy for the poor in Argentina reflects a more leftist church.

Last updated: 14 Mar 2014 13:05
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As Argentina's top Roman Catholic leader before he was elected pope, Francis was cherished among the poor [AP]

On his first anniversary as pontiff, Pope Francis has defended "slum priests" from the accusation their advocacy for the downtrodden reflects a different, leftist church that is remote from conservative Vatican values.

"The work of the priests in the slums of Buenos Aires is not ideological, it's apostolic, and therefore forms part of the same church.

Francis is a slum pope. It's not a cliche. He was quite involved in this slum before he was elected pope.

Eduardo Najera

"Those who think that it's another church don't understand how they work in the slums. The important thing is the work," Francis insisted in an interview made public on Thursday, according to the Associated Press news agency. 

As Argentina's top Roman Catholic leader before he was elected pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio assigned many priests to parishes in the crowded slums that grew up around the capital.

His support made him a cherished figure among the very poor who felt marginalised, especially during the bloody 1960s and 1970s, when military governments ruled the South American country.

"Francis is a slum pope. It's not a cliche. He was quite involved in this slum before he was elected pope," said Eduardo Najera, who directs the community radio station FM Bajo Flores that broadcasts from the Villa 1-11-14 slum across from the San Lorenzo soccer stadium, where the pope's favorite team plays.

'Bonded with the world'

The station interviewed the pope two weeks earlier at his residence in the Vatican, and the dialogue was played for the first time in public on Thursday on a huge screen before a crowd gathering inside the slum's gymnasium.

Francis was asked about Padre Carlos Mugica and other members of Argentina's Movement of Third World Priests, a branch of liberation theology, which the Vatican tried to stamp out for years.

Mugica was labeled a communist subversive by the right, but he also spoke out against armed revolution before he was murdered in 1974.

"They were not communists. They were great priests who fought for life," insisted the pope, who has sought to rehabilitate church views of liberation theology, a Latin American-inspired approach in which priests advocate for the poor.

The interview was warmly received. Agustina Mendoza, who has lived nearly half her 63 years in the slum, said Bergoglio used to sit in her house, sharing herbal mate tea and eating "sopa Paraguaya," a hearty kind of cornbread.

"I know he remembers my 'sopa Paraguaya.' His simplicity really stuck with me," she said.

"He used to be so serious. He never smiled. Now he's bonded with the entire world. Francis has met all expectations," she added.

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