Pope Francis ventured Friday into a violent, overcrowded and gang-ridden Bolivian prison that even houses small children living with their parents, and urged inmates not to despair.
If other events on the pope's three-nation tour of South America were joyous ones -- million-strong crowds of worshippers singing and praising the pontiff -- the trip to Bolivia's most dangerous prison was arguably a humbling descent into hell.
It seemed a fitting stop on a tour that has centered largely on drawing attention to the plight of the poor and marginalized -- one of the 78-year-old pope's cherished themes.
The pontiff, who specifically requested the visit to the Palmasola prison, stood before a crowd of inmates and their families and said they were probably wondering who he was. With some, he exchanged kisses and hugs.
"The man standing before you is a man who has experienced forgiveness. A man who was, and is, saved from his many sins," said the Argentine-born Francis, the first pope from Latin America.
"That is who I am. I don't have much more to give you or to offer you, but I want to share with you what I do have and what I love. It is Jesus Christ," the pope said.
The Palmasola prison is nearly 50 years old and was built to hold 600 prisoners but is now overflowing with nearly 5,000 men and women.
A gang war there in 2013 left more than 30 people dead. An estimated 30 percent of the inmates are accused of rape. The court system in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, is so backlogged that the vast majority of the inmates have not even stood trial yet.
The prison is home to 120 children living with their parents, even though this is illegal under Bolivian law. Some of them are as young as six years old.
Advocates for children say that with time, the imprisoned kids start to talk like inmates, adopting their lingo and referring to themselves as if they were criminal suspects.
- 'Help one another' -
Since being elected in 2013, Francis has emerged as a champion of the poor and advocate of social justice, and his visit Friday to what is probably one of the grimmest places in an already destitute country fit in with that track record.
He appealed to the prisoners not to give up hope, and to maintain their dignity.
"Being imprisoned, 'shut in', is not the same thing as being 'shut out.' Detention is part of a process of reintegration into society," the pope said.
With the overcrowding, violence and all the other problems in the prison, inmates have much to be frustrated over, and these problems must be resolved, the pope said.
"And yet, while working for this, we should not think that everything is lost. There are things that we can do even today," he said.
"Help one another. Do not be afraid to help one another. The devil is looking for rivalry, division, gangs. Keep working to make progress," the pontiff added.
The visit was a poignant stop before the pope headed off to Paraguay, the final destination of his week-long tour of South America, which started in Ecuador.
While in Bolivia, the pope was outspoken, calling for an end to what he called "genocide" of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"Today we are dismayed to see how in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world many of our brothers and sisters are persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus," said Francis, the first Jesuit pope.
"In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place, and it must end."
And in a historic gesture of reconciliation, he asked Bolivia's predominantly indigenous population for forgiveness from crimes committed centuries ago in the name of the Catholic Church.
Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality mostly afflicting indigenous populations.
Beginning in the 1500s, Spanish conquerors, with the blessing of the Church, subjugated and enslaved indigenous peoples in the Americas, annihilating native cultures and forcing their conversion to Christianity.
Millions of people were killed by disease and millions more from a brutal system of forced labor that led to the destruction of their indigenous lands and their way of life.