Pope Francis lands in Ecuador on three-nation tour

Quito (AFP) - Pope Francis arrived in Ecuador on Sunday to kick off his first South American trip in two years that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay and see him highlight the plight of the poor.

The 78-year-old, who hails from Argentina, landed at 2:43 pm (1943 GMT) at a blustery Mariscal Sucre international airport in Quito -- it was so windy his skullcap was blown off only seconds after he emerged from his plane.

It is the first visit by a pontiff to Ecuador in three decades, and thousands of excited people massed in the capital and lined the roadsides to greet him.

He jetted in aboard an Alitalia passenger plane, in a sign of the austere simplicity he has sought to bring to his office.

Still smiling despite losing his skullcap, he was met on the tarmac by a beaming Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and the pair shared a warm embrace.

Indigenous children wearing traditional outfits lined the lengthy red carpet, while an orchestra played. Francis shook the hands of each of them, as a considerable security detail kept at a discreet distance.

His last visit to South America was a triumphant trip to Brazil in 2013 that culminated with three million people gathering in Rio de Janeiro along Copacabana beach for a mass at the end of a Catholic youth festival.

Most of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics hail from Latin America, despite the onslaught from Evangelical beliefs and practices in recent years.

"I want to bear witness to the joy of the Gospel and bring God's tenderness and care," Francis -- the first South American pope -- said before leaving for the eight-day trip, during which he is to deliver no less than 22 speeches.

"Especially children in need, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, those who are victims of this throwaway culture."

All three of the countries he is visiting are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality mostly afflicting indigenous populations.

Francis, the first Jesuit pope, will give a Holy Mass to be broadcast in eight languages on Monday.

"I love the pope's sermons. I am among those who admire Saint Francis of Assisi, and I love him because he is authentic," said homemaker Maria Criolla, 44, speaking in front of a church in Quito.

Criollo, whose grandson bears the pope's name, plans to sleep in the capital's Bicentennial Park on Monday to make sure she misses nothing of a mass on Tuesday expected to draw three million faithful.

- Tensions in Ecuador -

The papal visit coincides with a time of political tension in Ecuador, with Correa facing growing calls to go in some of the biggest antigovernment demonstrations to shake the country in recent years.

Francis, who regularly wades into political issues, urged Correa to promote "dialogue and participation without exclusions."

"Progress and development must ensure a better future for all, paying special attention to our most vulnerable brothers and the most vulnerable minorities, which are the debt that Latin America still has," he said.

Correa did not let the demonstrations overshadow his enthusiasm for the papal visit.

"We are filled with joy at the coming of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope," Correa said in his weekly address.

"How the Church is changing! What a strong message you are bringing."

Correa will meet the pope again late Monday. Francis will also meet Bolivian leader Evo Morales and Paraguay's President Horacio Cartes.

- Outspoken advocate -

Since he was elected pope in March 2013, Francis has become an outspoken advocate for the poor and on social and environmental issues.

Last month, he urged the world to act quickly to prevent "extraordinary" climate change from destroying the planet.

Francis also called for "solidarity and peaceful coexistence" in Colombia and Venezuela.

Bogota is seeking to end a decades-old insurgency, while Caracas is struggling with political and economic upheaval.

It is his ninth trip abroad but only the second visit to Ecuador by a pope, with John Paul II traveling to the country in 1985.

Then, about 94 percent of the population was considered Catholic, compared to 80 percent today in the country of 16 million.

The decrease has come as Evangelical churches have attracted huge numbers of followers, many of whom are indigenous people who have grown tired of a lack of attention from the Catholic hierarchy.

The pope's visit will see him leave for La Paz, Bolivia on Wednesday.

He departs that country for Paraguay on Friday, before returning to Rome on July 12.