Next stop Bolivia for 'pope of the poor'

Quito (AFP) - Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, heads Wednesday to Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent's poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds.

Francis will arrive in the Andean state from Ecuador, where he will wrap up his stay with a visit to a sanctuary of the Virgin of El Quinche outside the capital Quito.

Poverty has been a key theme of this South American tour by "the pope of the poor," whose visit to Ecuador follows mass anti-government protests in the country in recent weeks.

At an outdoor mass Tuesday in Quito attended by nearly one million people, Francis called for unity among Ecuadoreans divided by class and political ideology and appealed for better protection of the Amazon rain forest.

Approximately 900,000 faithful braved the cold and rain to hear his homily in Bicentennial Park.

- Catholic 'revolution' -

The Argentine-born pontiff focused his message on what he called the Catholic "revolution", or quest to spread the Roman Catholic faith.

On Ecuador's divisions, he said the diversity of Ecuador's people was an "immense treasure" that could help steer society away from ideas that tended towards dictatorship, ideological thinking or sectarianism.

"Fight for inclusion at all levels," he implored on the third day of his South American tour.

Later, in a meeting with civil society groups -- including indigenous peoples opposed to oil extraction on their lands -- the pope stressed the important role the Amazon plays in the "global ecosystem" and said its "enormous diversity" required particular care.

"Ecuador -- together with other countries with Amazonian land -- has a chance to practice the teachings of integral ecology," he said.

Recalling his encyclical last month which appealed for quick action against climate change, he called for the Earth to be left a better place for future generations.

- Advocating for 'Mother Earth' -

"One thing is clear, we cannot continue turning our back on reality, on our brothers, on Mother Earth," he said during a meeting with teachers and students in Quito.

Environmental issues have plagued President Rafael Correa's eight-year-old administration, with ongoing protests by indigenous peoples over land damage that they say is due to mining and oil extraction.

The government has been beset by a separate set of protests in recent weeks over Correa's socialist policies, which have angered business leaders as well as the upper and middle classes, who want him to step down.

Correa, an admirer of the pope, had a private meeting with Francis late Monday. The pope later said he would bless the country so that internal differences might be reconciled.

- Veiled message to Correa? -

During Tuesday's mass, the pope invoked South America's independence movements from Spain 200 years ago.

"That cry for liberty... did not lack conviction or force, but history tells us that it was only convincing when the focus on personalities and desire for singular leadership, were put aside," Francis said.

He did not single out any country or government in a region that has known right-wing dictatorships in the past, and controversial left-wing leaders in recent years.

But some of the faithful saw the pope's words as a veiled message to both the opposition and Correa, who attended the mass.

"In an indirect way, he told the president to take into account that there are people who don't have the same ideas as him," said Felipe Lascano, a 22-year-old university student.

Pope Francis met with Ecuadoran bishops before the mass.

The pope earlier celebrated a huge outdoor mass with 800,000 people at a park in the coastal city of Guayaquil, where he focused on the theme of family as the heart of society.

It is the first visit by a pontiff to Ecuador in three decades. His first visit to Latin America as pope was in Brazil in 2013.

His current tour comes at a time when the Vatican is losing followers to protestantism in Latin America, home of many of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

After wrapping up the Bolivia leg of his trip, Francis travels Friday to Paraguay, where police said they would prohibit signs alluding to hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

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.

When Pope John Paul II visited Ecuador in 1985, about 94 percent of the population was 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 disenchanted by a lack of attention from the Catholic hierarchy.