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Brazil's security prepares for pope's visit, wary of violent street protests

| Sunday, July 21, 2013, 8:24 p.m.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Sunday thanked the faithful in St. Peter's Square for their good wishes for his first trip abroad.

The pontiff departed from his prepared text during the traditional Angelus prayer and pointed to a large banner with “Buon Viaggio,” Italian for “Bon Voyage.”

“I ask you to join me spiritually through prayer on the journey I will begin tomorrow,” Francis said.

More than a million young Catholics are expected to celebrate with the new pope during World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro.

For Brazilian security officials charged with protecting the 76-year-old, his seven-day visit presents an uncommon security challenge.

Francis has built much of his schedule in the world's biggest Catholic country around high-profile events that send him straight into unpredictable, potentially chaotic environments — without the protection of the bulletproof popemobile used by his two predecessors.

On Thursday, the pope will visit a tiny chapel founded in 1971 in the Varginha slum, one of Rio's more than 1,000 hillside shantytowns. Many such slums cower under the control of dangerous drug gangs or deadly militias made up mostly of former and current police and firefighters. Police invaded Varginha in January to clear out traffickers, but the gangs remain a shadowy presence.

The next day, Francis will hit Copacabana beach to walk the Stations of the Cross among young Catholics gathered for World Youth Day festivities. Vatican officials have said he'll travel to the beach past thousands of devotees in an open-topped vehicle, a plan that would put the thousands of police and soldiers dispatched to protect the pope on high alert and require more plainclothes security.

Brazil's justice and defense ministers, along with a top army commander, urged the pope to use an armored popemobile instead, but the Vatican has responded that Francis likes to jump in and out of his vehicle to greet the faithful, which wouldn't be possible in the more protected vehicle.

“The bulletproofing would lessen our worries; it'd be better if he had it,” said Gen. Jose Abreu, the top officer overseeing the military's role in the security scheme. “It's a personal choice, and we'll respect it, but it's not remotely pleasant for security forces.”

On the top of everyone's minds are the enormous and sometimes violent anti-government protests that swept Brazil last month.

But Francis insists on keeping his visit simple. At the church residence where he will stay in Rio, the pope will have a spartan room with only a nondescript cross on the wall. He will sleep in a single bed. His meals will not be elaborate, said Irma Terezinha Fernandes, who is overseeing the kitchen.

“It's Brazilian food, rice, beans, a churrasco,” she said, referring to Brazilian-style barbecued beef. With a light giggle, she said, “He's the same as before he became pope. He's fine with simplicity.”

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