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Pope says he hopes to visit "suffering" Argentina this year

Pope Francis holds weekly audience at the Vatican

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) - Pope Francis said on Sunday that the people of Argentina are suffering and that he hopes to be able make his first trip back to his homeland in the second half of this year.

On Thursday, Argentine President Javier Milei's office said he had invited the 87-year-old Francis to visit, appearing to extend an olive branch after attacking the Catholic leader in recent years.

"Yes I am worried because the people are suffering a lot. It is a difficult moment for the country," he said in response to a question about Argentina during an interview on an Italian television programme on Sunday night.

Argentina is facing its worst economic crisis in decades and Milei has said there was no alternative to a sharp and painful fiscal shock to remedy the situation.

After taking office in December, Milei, who once called the pope an "imbecile," unveiled a slew of economic measures meant to pull Argentina out of triple-digit inflation, rising poverty and a shortage of reserves.

"There is a possibility of making a trip in the second part of the year. There has been a change of government, there are some new things," Francis said.

He said an eventual trip to Argentina would take place after August, when he is planning to visit some countries in Polynesia.

"After that, the trip to Argentina, if it can be done, but I would like to go. It's been 10 years. I think I can go," he said in a video link from his Vatican residence with Italy's popular Channel 9 programme "Che Tempo Che Fa".

Before he decided to run for president, Milei, a former TV "shock jock" commentator, made a series of attacks on the pope, calling him an "imbecile who defends social justice" and "the representative of the evil one on Earth".

In September, priests from poor districts in Buenos Aires, the pope's birthplace and where he also was archbishop, held a Mass to defend Francis and condemn Milei's attacks on him.

Francis and Milei spoke on phone in November, after Milei's election.

Francis has made more than 40 trips outside Italy, including many in Latin America, since his election nearly 11 years ago as the first Latin American pontiff but has yet to visit Argentina.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by Diane Craft)