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Humble Pope Francis's visit to a Rio slum gives residents fresh hope

‘It’s important the Pope is coming… hopefully things will get better’

The modest road-side shrine to Aparecida, the patron saint of Brazil, had been decorated with pale blue and white forget-me-nots. White balloons in the shape of a cross overlaid  with the word “paz”, meaning peace, hung from a dilapidated window. A young gospel choir practised their dance moves.

An hour before Pope Francis swept into the Varginha favela in Rio de Janeiro today, as families hung from the windows in anticipation of a glimpse of the Pontiff, there was no mistaking the sense of hope.

The slum was once nicknamed the “Gaza Strip” as it was so blighted with violence by the drug gangs that would swagger down its streets with semi-automatic weapons on their shoulders.

But, with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics on the horizon, Varginha was – like some other favelas – “pacified” by heavily-armed police last year. The promise for the residents was greatly improved services in an area with chronic problems with housing, sanitation and power supplies.

There have been some improvements – such as the recently tarmacked road outside the church the Pope visited – but the favela still frequently floods when there is heavy rain. The night before the Papal visit, residents were left preparing by candlelight after another power cut.

The fear among some residents is that, once the spotlight of the Papal visit fades, their ongoing problems will once again become expendable.

But nothing could stem the optimism. Saleta Felix, 56, who has lived in Varginha all her life, wept as she described how important the Pope’s visit was to the community.

“Varginha has changed a lot,” she said. “It’s so small and so poor and now we have the Pope coming. I hope it’s going to improve things. We had a blackout last night but it’s happening a lot. It’s hard when you’re cooking, the fridge goes off, no one can do anything. Sometimes it’s 9am to 5pm.

“It’s so important that the Pope is coming because hopefully now things can get better.”

Josefa Gonçalves, 49, a Catholic woman who travelled for an hour by bus to Varginha with her mother and her two sons to see the Pope, said she had already seen improvements. “The community is much better now than when I used to know it,” she said.

Few of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have descended on Rio this week for World Youth Day made it to see the city’s North Zone.

Pope Francis, an Argentinian, arrived in Rio on Monday for a week-long visit – his first trip abroad since he was elected in March – and last night he was set to address a massive crowd on Copacabana beach.

His visit comes at a time of growing social unrest in Brazil and at a time when the Catholic Church is losing ground to evangelical rivals. During the trip, he has visited a hospital for drug addicts and met prisoners. The week will culminate in an overnight vigil and mass for up to 1.5 million pilgrims.

Earlier, the Pope waded into the political debate over drug legalisation plans in Latin America, criticising a move towards more leniency in countries such as Uruguay, and calling for the root of drug abuse to be tackled. He made the statements during a speech at the inauguration of a clinic for drug addicts in Rio, where he met and chatted with former addicts.

In Varginha, he fulfilled his reputation as a man of the people, arriving in an open-sided Popemobile and stopping several times along the way to kiss babies handed to him by his security staff. A torrential downpour did not stop him blessing the simple São Jeronimo Emiliani chapel before walking within touching distance of the crowd to make a speech at a football ground.

He said: “The Brazilian people, particularly the humblest among you, can offer the world a valuable lesson in solidarity, a word that is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable. I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity. No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world.”

Today, as Pope Francis left the favela with his entourage of cardinals, officials, police and press in his wake, the residents could only hope that those words would not be forgotten.

Crime and sewage: Living in a favela

The Varginha slum is part of the Manguinhos favela complex, a collection of around of around 1,000 favelas in the northern region of Rio de Janeiro. The slum is home to around 2,500 people and is one of the poorest in the area, with the average resident subsiding on around $156 (£100) a month.

Varginha is notorious for crime – although the residents themselves rarely participate in it –and the area is dominated by violence between rival drug gangs and militias. These gangs are often made up of former and current police officers and fire fighters.

In January, an attempt was made to “pacify” the area and remove these gangs: this entailed flooding the area with police, armed forces and tanks. However, the violent presence of Varginha’s traffickers remains strong.

The shantytown also has poor sanitation. Open sewers run through the streets, often resulting in deaths, and protests claiming that the conditions breach human rights are under way. Jennifer Cannon