Amazon is ‘heart of the church,’ pope says

PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru (AP) — From deep in the scorching Amazon rainforest, Pope Francis demanded Friday that corporations stop their relentless extraction of timber, gas and gold from God’s “holy ground,” and called on governments to recognize the indigenous peoples living there as the primary forces in determining its future.

Bare-chested and tattooed native families, many sporting feathered and beaded headgear, interrupted Francis repeatedly with applause, wailing horns and beating drums as history’s first Latin American pope declared the Amazon and its indigenous peoples the “heart of the church.”

In the highlight of his weeklong trip to Chile and Peru, Francis warned that the Amazon people are more threatened than ever, and called for a threefold defense of their life, their land and their cultures.

“You are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us all: the protection of our common home,” the pope said.

Francis travelled to Puerto Maldonado, the gateway to Peru’s Amazon, before calling on President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a protocol-bending change to the itinerary undertaken because of weather concerns that had the unintended effect of signaling that the Amazon natives were Francis’ top priority in Peru.

Francis did meet later with Kucyznski in the presidential palace in Lima, where he blasted corruption as a “social virus” that must be stopped — a charged comment given the Peruvian president is under investigation in Latin America’s biggest corruption scandal.

Francis’ trip to the Amazon came as the expansion of illegal gold mining, new roads, dams and farming have turned thousands of acres of once lush green forest into barren, contaminated wastelands. In his landmark 2015 encyclical, “Praise Be,” Francis demanded world leaders do more to protect what he called “one of the lungs” of God’s creation, and denounced the profit-at-all-cost business interests behind its steady demise.

The issue is so important to the Argentine pope that he has called a global church meeting next year on the Amazon and its native peoples.

“The sky is angry and is crying because we are destroying the planet,” Hector Sueyo, a member of the indigenous Harakbut people, told the pope between performances of traditional songs and dance.

Yesica Patiachi, also Harakbut, told Francis loggers, oil workers and gold diggers come to their lands to take the resources without consulting with the indigenous people whose ancestors have lived there for centuries.