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Pope Presses Need for Dignity of Work for Madagascar's Poor

Pope Francis greets worshippers after celebrating a Mass in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Francis is on the second leg of his African visit and will head to Mauritius Monday.

Pope Francis is pressing for the poor to have the dignity of work with a visit Sunday to a hilltop rock quarry in Madagascar where hundreds of people toil rather than scavenge in the biggest dump of the Indian Ocean nation's capital.

After celebrating an open-air Mass before an estimated 1 million people, Francis heads to Akamasoa village, the brainchild of an Argentine priest who was so overwhelmed by the abject poverty of Madagascar that he set about creating ways for the poor to earn a living.

Over 30 years, the Akamasoa quarry has produced the stones that built the homes, roads, schools and health clinics that now dot the pine-covered hillside of Antananarivo. Founder the Rev. Pedro Opeka said the low salaries he can pay are "an injustice" — about 1 euro a day — but they are at least more than the dump scavengers earn, and enough for parents to send their children to school.

"Akamasoa is a revolt against poverty, it is a revolt against fatality," Opeka told The Associated Press ahead of the pope's visit. "When we started here it was an inferno, people who were excluded from the society."

Opeka, a charismatic, bearded figure who is beloved by many in this city, grew up in Francis' native Buenos Aires and even studied theology at the same seminary where the future pope studied and taught. A member of the Lazarist religious order, he was working as a missionary in Madagascar when he was inspired to create Akamasoa after witnessing the wretched life led by parents and children who lived off the dump scraps.

The Akamasoa project, which is funded by donors around the world and recognized by the Madagascar government, says it has built some 4,000 homes in more than 20 villages serving some 25,000 people since its foundation in 1989. About 700 people work in the rock quarry, using simple mallets to chop chunks of granite into cobblestones or pebbles, while others work as carpenters or attend training classes. It says 14,000 children have passed through its schools.

Despite Madagascar's vast and unique natural resources, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. The World Bank says 75% of its 24 million people live on less than $2 a day; only 13% of the population has access to electricity.

Francis, the first pope from the global south, has long preached about the dignity of work, and the need for all able-bodied adults to be able to earn enough to provide for their families. He is expected to deliver a prayer for workers during a visit to the rock quarry in one of the highlights of his weeklong Africa pilgrimage.

Susane Razanamahasoa, 65, has worked in the quarry for 20 years, 9{ hours a day, to provide for her six children. She said the pope's visit recalled the dedication to the poor of St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake.

"He is an extraordinary man and the fact that he has taken the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi means he is thirsty to live like St. Francis," she said during a break in her work. "I am so full of joy that he is coming."

Francis began his day with a Mass on a dusty field in the capital, where the faithful who attended an evening vigil spent a cold, windy night securing spots for the Sunday service.

They roared and waved plastic Madagascar and Holy See flags as Francis looped through the crowd before Mass on his popemobile, kicking up red dust in his wake. Citing local organizers, the Vatican said an estimated 1 million people were on hand.

In his homily, Francis told the crowd to not work only for their own personal agendas and goals, but for others.

"As we look around us, how many men and women, young people and children are suffering and in utter need!" he said. "This is not part of God's plan. How urgently Jesus calls us to kill off our self-centeredness, our individualism and our pride!"

On Monday, Francis travels to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius on the final day of his weeklong, three-nation Africa trip.