Pope Francis praised the reforms of Evo Morales on his arrival in Bolivia yesterday.
He said “important steps” were being made “towards including broad sectors in the country’s economic, social and political life”.
But he also stressed the role of the Catholic Church in Bolivian society, saying the faith took “deep root” centuries ago “and has continued to shed its light upon society, contributing to the development of the nation and shaping its culture”.
“The voice of the bishops, which must be prophetic, speaks to society in the name of the Church, our mother, from her preferential, evangelical option for the poor,” he said.
President Morales has taken a combative attitude towards the Church since taking office nearly 10 years ago.
He ordered the Bible and cross to be removed from the presidential palace and made the country a secular state.
But he is keen to be seen as an ally of Pope Francis, visiting him twice in Rome.
As the Pope arrived yesterday he received a hug from Morales, who later gave him a crucifix carved into a hammer and sickle.
At the airport welcoming ceremony Pope Francis said: “As a guest and a pilgrim, I have come to confirm the faith of those who believe in the Risen Christ, so that, during our pilgrimage on earth, we believers may be witnesses of his love, leaven for a better world and co-operators in the building of a more just and fraternal society.”
Paul Vallely, author of the forthcoming book Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, told the Catholic Herald that Morales, who is an Aymara Indian, sees the Church as “continuing the mindset of the country’s Spanish colonial conquerors”.
He added: “The Pope’s agenda should go a long way to addressing that. He will make them a special focus of concern. But also many of the issues which concern them concern him too – environmental concerns, land conflicts and so on.”
Later in a speech to civil authorities in La Paz the Pope denounced the “atmosphere of inequality” in Bolivia, saying that the common good should not be confused with “prosperity”.
Prosperity, he said, had “opened the door to the evil of corruption”. The country’s judiciary is famously corrupt, with large numbers of judges and prosecutors under investigation or on trial for corruption.
The Pope also prayed at the site where a murdered Jesuit priest was found in 1980. The priest, Fr Luis Espinal, had been tortured by Bolivia’s paramilitary squads.
After the brief stop in La Paz, the Pope flew to Santa Cruz in Bolivia’s central lowlands, where he will spend the rest of his visit to the country.