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Vatican says Benedict to reach out to Mexican on first trip, despite lack of public enthusiasm
LEON, Mexico (AP) ' Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in Mexico on Friday will reveal his ability to communicate with a people whose passionate adoration of his predecessor threatens to overshadow the pontiff's message of peace and continuing faith for a country shaken by horrific drug violence, the Vatican's ambassador pledged on the eve of the trip.
Pope John Paul II was greeted with ecstatic scenes on each of his five trips to Mexico, whose faithful today consider him practically one of the country's patron saints.
In contrast, there was little visible excitement about the more austere and less charismatic Benedict less than 24 hours before his arrival in Guanajuato, a deeply conservative and highly observant state in sun-baked central Mexico. Campgrounds with a capacity for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were virtually empty. Traffic on the highways leading to the sites of the pope's visit didn't appear heavier than on an ordinary weekday night.
Carlos Aguiar, president of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, said he expected the faithful to begin arriving Friday.
The papal envoy, Christophe Pierre, said Benedict's visit would allow Mexicans to "discover the pope" and "his ability to communicate, to speak deeply, but simply."
There were some stirrings of enthusiasm about Benedict's first trip to Mexico. About 60 people who described themselves as Catholics unaffiliated with any church burned brush to create a neater vista along a section of the pope's route from the airport to the Catholic school where he will spend his three nights in Mexico.
"It's the first time a pope has visited our community. We're excited," Maria Belen, a 36-year-old homemaker, said as she swept inches of powdery dust and gravel off a sidewalk.
Farther down the highway, young men and women sold flags in the yellow-and-white Vatican colors, although few motorists stopped to buy them.
The biggest crowd appeared to be the thousands gathered outside an evangelical Protestant church sitting at the highway exit leading to Bicentennial Park, where Benedict will deliver Mass on Sunday.
"We are not Roman Catholics. We are the Light of the World Church," a huge banner announced to passing motorists.
Church spokesman Ezequiel Zamora said the convention of young missionaries had been planned long before the pope's visit was announced, and the evangelical church had no intention of upstaging the pontiff.
Guanajuato is 93.8 percent Catholic, the highest percentage in Mexico, but Protestant and evangelical denominations have made deeper inroads in other parts of the country, particularly along the northern and southern borders.
The last time a pope visited Mexico, more than 1 million believers cheered and wept in the streets of Mexico City. Dancers dressed in Aztec costumes shook rattles and blew conch shells inside the cathedral where John Paul II canonized the first Indian saint in the Americas.
A decade later, Benedict comes to a church battling to overcome painful setbacks that include legalized abortion and gay marriage in the capital of the most populous Catholic country in the Spanish-speaking world.
It is also a nation grappling with a drug war that has spread fear into once-tranquil regions such as Guanajuato.
"There is a very immense peace that we need in Mexico because of the insecurity," said Marcela Arguello, a 26-year-old housewife who said she planned to stand along the route of the papal motorcade through the city of Leon, the state's largest city.
Mexico has been traumatized by the deaths of more than 47,000 people in drug-related violence in less than six years, and while Guanajuato is far from major drug trafficking routes, the shadow of the conflict looms even here.
"Yes, he'll talk about violence, we can't ignore that, but I can tell you as a representative of the Holy Father that there's much more than violence in Mexico," Pierre said.
"The Holy Father, in the name of God, comes to remind, to ask people not to lose their path in life," Pierre added.
A recent series of apparently gang-related shootings has killed some two dozen people in Guanajuato state, which is noted for leather goods, auto factories and picturesque tourist towns.
Yet even the drug cartels profess to be people of faith. At least 11 banners signed by the pseudo-religious Knights Templar gang were found in five municipalities of Guanajuato last week, including in Leon, offering peace during the papal trip.
As many as 300,000 people are expected to gather for the Sunday Mass, a large turnout even in a state that is so heavily Catholic and a stronghold of President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party, which has roots in militantly Catholic organizations that formed decades ago to challenge an atheistic federal government.
The hacker group Anonymous in Mexico crashed at least two of the websites for Benedict's visit to Mexico on Thursday, claiming his trip is a political move to support the president's party.
Anonymous Mexico said in a video posted on social media sites that the pope's visit will cost Mexicans money that could be better spent on the poor, and is meant to support the PAN in the July 1 presidential election. PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota trails front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party by at least 10 percentage points in most polls.
The official campaign season starts at the end of this month.
The pope's "visit comes precisely at the start of the electoral campaigns," said the faceless Anonymous figure in the video. "The PAN will take this as a political weapon to win the votes of millions of Catholics in Mexico."
Guanajuato's constitution declares that life begins at conception and bars abortion with extremely limited exceptions. Seven women were jailed there in 2010 for the deaths of their newborns and later released. The women said they had miscarriages, not abortions.
Benedict's church is encouraging more such laws across Mexico, reacting partly to the legalization of gay marriage and abortion in Mexico City, the cultural and political center of the country.
At the same time, church leaders are fighting to overcome their share of the global child sex-abuse scandal, which destroyed the reputation of the most influential Mexican figure in the church.
The Rev. Marcial Maciel founded the Legionaries of Christ order, which John Paul II praised as a model of rectitude. But a series of investigations forced the order to acknowledge in 2010 that Maciel had sexually abused seminarians and fathered three children. Church documents released in a book this week reveal the Vatican had been told of Maciel's drug abuse and pederasty decades ago.
Calderon's government is backing legislation that would end now often ignored restriction on religious observances in public places, as well as a ban on religious participation in politics.
If approved, it could lay the groundwork for laws allowing church ownership of media and openly religious education on school property, said political analyst John Ackerman at the legal research institute at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
"This opens the door for the church to start using public spaces," Ackerman said. "It has the full intention to be interpreted as occupying public spaces with religious ceremonies, that's what's on the table."
Associated Press writer Dario Lopez-Mills contributed to this report.