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Pope to Meet Mexican President Saturday

Pope Benedict XVI blesses a young Mexican boy as he arrives in Leon, March 23, 2012.
Pope Benedict XVI blesses a young Mexican boy as he arrives in Leon, March 23, 2012.

Pope Benedict meets with Mexican President Felipe Calderon Saturday, as the Roman Catholic leader embarks on a five-day Latin America trip that will also take him to Cuba.

The pontiff began his day with celebration of a private Mass at Miraflores College in the central Mexican city of Leon. He planned an early evening meeting with the Mexican leader at the state government house in Guanajuato, followed by a gathering with children on the city's Peace Square.

On Sunday, the pope is presiding over a huge outdoor Mass in Leon.

Thousands of supporters turned out to welcome the pope when he arrived Friday at Guanajuato International Airport. They spread out along the entire 32-kilometer route from the airport to Leon, cheering and chanting "brother, you are now Mexican."

It was a warmer welcome than some had predicted for Benedict, who had not been expected to generate the excitement made by his predecessor. The late John Paul II was the first pope ever to visit Mexico and widely revered there.

Drug violence

The pontiff said he would pray for those imperiled by Mexico's drug violence.

"I will pray especially for those in need, particularly those who suffer because of old and new rivalries, resentments, and all forms of violence," he said.

President Calderon said his countrymen welcomed the papal visit.

"There are many challenges that we have had to face in recent times. The pope is welcomed by a people that have suffered,'' he said.

While on board his flight to Mexico, Pope Benedict told reporters that the Church must do all it can do to prevent young people in Mexico from joining drug cartels. He said a lust for money was behind the country's drug violence.

Mexico's bloody drug war has left about 50,000 people dead since President Calderon launched a crackdown on the drug cartels in 2006.

Visit to Cuba

This is Pope Benedict's first visit to both Mexico and Cuba.

The Roman Catholic Church is under pressure in Mexico from the growing rise of Protestant churches, as well as a scandal involving a prominent priest, Marcial Maciel, who was facing allegations of drug addiction and molesting young boys when he died.

During the flight, the pope said the Catholic Church is ready to help Cuba move away from communism, saying the Marxist ideology no longer corresponds to reality. He said the Church is willing to help Cuba move ahead without "trauma."

In Cuba, the pontiff is expected to meet with President Raul Castro, and visit Santiago de Cuba and Havana, before leaving for the Vatican March 28.