By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis heads to Panama on Wednesday where he is expected to highlight the problems of poverty, immigration and human rights at a gathering of young Catholics.
The Jan. 23-28 trip for the Church's World Youth Day will be Francis' first to Central America, a region that has been caught up in a migration crisis as thousands of people try to make their way north to the United States to seek asylum or jobs.
When he visited Mexico in February 2016, Francis criticized then presidential candidate Donald Trump's pledge to build a wall along the border with Mexico to curb illegal immigration.
"Many of the young people in that region are immigrants ... I think we can expect references (to the migration crisis) from the Holy Father," Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti told reporters.
The border wall is again a hot topic in the United States, which is in the throes of a partial government shutdown as now President Trump is insisting on his demand to fund the barrier as part of any bill to fully reopen the government.
Since mid-October, thousands of Central Americans, mostly from Honduras, have travelled north through Mexico in a caravan, some walking much of the long trek to try to reach the United States.
At that time, Francis denounced "a wave of closure toward the foreigner".
Many migrants are seeking asylum, saying they suffer from violence and human rights abuses in their native countries. Those topics are also expected to be themes of the trip, papal aides say.
The 82-year-old Francis, now in the sixth year of his papacy, is also scheduled to visit a juvenile prison and a hospice for AIDS sufferers.
World Youth Day, held in a different city about every three years, has been dubbed the "Catholic Woodstock", a jamboree where young people celebrate their faith and discuss social issues.
About 150,000 have registered for this year's event, being held in Latin America for only the third time since the late Pope John Paul instituted it in 1985.
Several hundred thousand people are expected at the final Mass at a park on Sunday that will be open to all residents and visitors to the country of 4 million people, which is about 89 percent Catholic.
Francis told Reuters in June he had wanted to make a stop in nearby El Salvador to pray at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot by a right-wing death squad in 1980 because of his denunciations of human rights abuses and government repression.
Francis later decided to make a longer trip to El Salvador sometime in the future. But many young people from the country will travel to Panama to help the pope commemorate Romero, who was made a saint last October and is considered an icon of the Latin American Church.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alison Williams)