Pope Francis seeks Bolivians' forgiveness for colonial-era crimes

Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia) (AFP) - Pope Francis, in a historic gesture of reconciliation, sought forgiveness Thursday from Bolivia's predominantly indigenous inhabitants for crimes committed centuries earlier in the name of the Catholic Church.

The Argentine-born pope, who has never been afraid to weigh into delicate issues both religious and political, made the comments on the second stop of a three-nation Latin America homecoming tour.

"I want to tell you, and I want to be very clear: I humbly ask your forgiveness, not only for the offenses committed by our own church, but for the crimes committed by original inhabitants during the so-called conquest of America," Francis told a gathering of social activists, to sustained and enthusiastic applause.

"There have been many, very serious crimes committed again the native peoples of America in the name of God," the pontiff said, in what was, to date, one of the most powerful and moving moments of his weeklong South America visit.

His apology for colonial era crimes against the indigenous people of America was offered at a so-called World Meeting of the Popular Movements in the city of Santa Cruz.

All three of the countries Francis is visiting during this tour -- Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay -- are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality mostly afflicting indigenous populations.

Beginning in the 1500s, Spanish conquerors, with the blessing of the Church, subjugated and enslaved indigenous peoples in the Americas, annihilating native cultures and forcing their conversion to Christianity.

Millions of people were killed by disease and millions more from a brutal system of forced labor that led to the destruction of their indigenous lands and their way of life.

- One million faithful -

Earlier on Thursday, Francis called on a million faithful to reject today's consumer society, at an open-air mass in the vast Christ the Redeemer Plaza in Santa Cruz, where many people had camped out overnight to see him.

He also urged Bolivians against discarding the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, including the poor, voiceless and the disenfranchised.

He denounced what he called a "mentality in which everything has a price, everything can be bought, everything is negotiable. This way of thinking has room only for a select few," the 78-year-old told the crowd, estimated by authorities in Bolivia -- South America's poorest nation -- at one million strong.

The two-hour service featured religious hymns and chants. Hundreds of musicians also played Baroque works, introduced by Spanish Jesuit missionaries in the 18th century and still very popular in this country.

Thousands in the crowd were from Bolivia's indigenous majority and President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous leader, was in the front row.

Around the plaza, dominated by the giant bronze Christ the Redeemer statue, big-screen TVs were erected for people to watch the religious service.

- 'As close as possible' -

Since his election in 2013, Francis -- who hails from Argentina and is also the first Jesuit pope -- has cut a down-to-earth figure, which is going down well in Santa Cruz.

"We want to be as close as possible to receive the blessings that he is going to bestow," said one of the campers who waited overnight to see the pope, Nancy Camacho, her head wrapped in a thick scarf.

Francis arrived in Bolivia on Wednesday evening in the high-altitude Andean city of La Paz -- more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level.

Concerned authorities had extra oxygen tanks on hand for the pope, who lost a lung during his youth, but he was not seen using it.

Francis has impressed people with his stamina as he walked amid crowds, kissed people and took selfies. Some of the journalists traveling with him had to stop and take a shot of oxygen.

Bolivia is destitute -- the minimum monthly wage is equivalent to about $240 a month -- but has made economic progress in recent years.

Alcohol sales and musical performances have been banned throughout the country during the pope's visit, and 17,000 police and soldiers have been deployed.

On Friday, Francis visits Bolivia's most notorious and dangerous prison, continuing his focus on the plight of the poor, the forgotten and the marginalized.

He will then head to Paraguay, the last stop on his tour of South America, which began in Ecuador.