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Pope Benedict XVI Rallies Catholic Youth During Brazil Visit

Pope Benedict XVI has appealed directly to the youth of Brazil to follow a strict moral code. In Sao Paulo, VOA's Brian Wagner reports the pope's speech to the young is seen as crucial to his effort to strengthen the Roman Catholic church in the face of growing concerns across Latin America.

The pope opened his day by greeting thousands of followers gathered outside a monastery in downtown Sao Paulo. He met with Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to discuss social efforts launched by the Brazilian government, including a program that provides grants to poor families as long as their children continue attending school.

Brazilian officials said President da Silva told the pope Brazil wants to help Africa to develop an ethanol industry as a means of easing poverty. Brazil is the world's leader in the production of ethanol fuel from sugar cane and one of the major ethanol exporters.

Brazilian officials said one topic that the two leaders did not discuss was abortion, which recently has stirred tensions in the mostly Roman Catholic nation.

Except under very special circumstances, abortion is against the law in Brazil. President da Silva has said that, while he opposes abortion, he views it as a public health issue, not a moral one. And Brazil's health minister, who favors a referendum on the legalization of abortion, has rejected the Vatican's criticism, saying that church and state have long been separate in Brazil.

Although the government is unlikely to reconsider the ban, the abortion debate is serving to rally support among Catholic faithful. One church member from Sao Paulo's suburbs, Juliana Moreira, says if the issue came to a vote, she would reject any changes to the law.

She says God gave people the ability to create new life, but he did not give them the right to undo that life. She says the best set of beliefs for her is the church's beliefs.

Moreira was among thousands of young people who gathered at a soccer stadium in Sao Paolo to hear a speech from Pope Benedict about the need to follow a religious lifestyle. Many Catholic youth welcomed the pope's message, saying it is needed as more and more young people are drawn to drugs, alcohol and crime.

Larry Garcia Arias, who traveled to Sao Paulo from Peru for the pope's visit, said he has seen many youth in need of help.

He says young people may see themselves as failures, and he says it is important for them to hear the pope deliver a message of love and concern for them.

The message is welcome in Brazilian cities like Sao Paulo, where police often battle armed drug gangs in the streets. Catholic pilgrim Maria Luisa dos Santos said the church can play a key role in the lives of millions of young people.

She says more efforts are needed to get young people off drugs and off the streets. She says young people in trouble need hope, and religion gives that hope to them.

Pope Benedict is to address the danger of drugs on Saturday, when he plans to visit a facility for recovering drug addicts outside Sao Paulo. He concludes his visit Sunday with a Mass to celebrate the opening of a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean bishops.