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Pope Francis sidesteps Venezuela crisis during visit to Panama

The pontiff’s speech was focused on corruption although his spokesman said he was monitoring the situation.

Pope Francis urged public officials to live simply, honestly and transparently as he opened a visit to a Central American region that has been rife with corruption scandals and is now coping with political upheaval in nearby Venezuela.

Francis did not mention the Venezuela crisis during his first remarks in Panama after a meeting with President Juan Carlos Varela at the presidential palace.

But his spokesman said he was following the situation closely, was praying for the Venezuelan people and supported “all efforts that help save the population from further suffering”.

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People take a photo of Pope Francis in Panama City (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

Francis stuck to his script in Panama, celebrating the country’s place as a bridge between oceans and cultures and holding up the region’s newest saint, slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, as a model for a humble church that accompanies the poor.

He thanked the Panamanian government for “opening the doors of your home” to young pilgrims who have flocked here for World Youth Day, the Catholic Church’s big youth rally and the reason for his visit.

But he warned that those same young people are increasingly demanding that public officials live lives that are coherent with the jobs entrusted to them, and build a “culture of greater transparency” between the public and private sectors.

“They call upon them to live in simplicity and transparency, with a clear sense of responsibility for others and for our world,” Francis said.

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People react as Pope Francis rides past (Rebecca Blackwell/PA)

“To lead a life that demonstrates that public service is a synonym of honesty and justice, and opposed to all forms of corruption.”

Transparency International estimates that as much as 1% of Panama’s GDP, approximately 600 million US dollars, may have been lost to various corruption schemes during the presidency of Ricardo Martinelli, who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014.

Mr Martinelli was extradited to Panama last year from the United States to face political espionage and embezzlement charges.

Francis’ visit is taking place against the backdrop of both the turmoil in Venezuela and the ongoing migrant stand-off in the United States, where the government is partly shut down over President Donald Trump’s demand for congressional funding for a wall at the US-Mexico border.

History’s first Latin American pope, who was born to Italian immigrants to Argentina, has made the plight of migrants a cornerstone of his papacy and denounced how fear of migrants was driving populist and nationalist sentiment across the globe.

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Faithful strike a pose holding a poster of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Speaking Thursday to Central American bishops, Francis urged church institutions from dioceses down to individual parishes to welcome and integrate migrants and serve as models for the rest of society to overcome fears of foreigners.

And he urged them to look to Romero as inspiration for being a humble church that listens to the poor and accompanies them as a father accompanies his children.

Francis said that young people today have few opportunities and face dangerous, difficult challenges, citing “domestic violence, the killing of women, our continent is experiencing a plague in this regard, armed gangs and criminals, drug trafficking, the sexual exploitation of minors and young people, and so on”.

Francis has frequently urged young people to resist easy temptations of drug dealing and gang membership, and to especially avoid the lure of corruption.

It is a message that will likely resonate with the youth of the region.

Transparency International’s latest index of perceived corruption ranks the entire Central American region poorly, with the exception of Costa Rica.

Panama ranked 96 out of 180 countries surveyed globally in 2017, better than many in the region including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, but still far from clean.

Press Association

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