Pope Benedict XVI has received a rapturous welcome at the start of his first official visit to Mexico. An estimated 300,000 people turned out to welcome the pontiff, who is on a four-day trip, before heading to Cuba.
The Pope told supporters: “I know this country is proud of its hospitality and nobody feels like a stranger in your land. I knew that, now I see it and now I feel it in my heart.”
Pope Benedict’s visit is aimed at strengthening support for the Roman Catholic church, which has been falling in recent decades as Mexicans turn to more evangelic and protestant faiths.
The pontiff will skip a trip to the capital Mexico City due to its high altitude, which the Vatican says is not good for his health.
The main event of the Pope’s visit will be Sunday’s open-air Mass in Leon’s Bicentennial Park. More than 300,000 tickets have been distributed. Thousands more are expected to gather on the sides of the nearby mountain.
Gay and lesbian groups took to the streets to denounce the Catholic church’s human rights record. Other activists criticised the cost of putting on the Pope’s trip.
Separately, Mexico’s murderous drug cartels have promised a truce in their violence during the pontiff’s visit.