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Pope makes rally cry for world's poor in speech to Brazilian slum

Pope Francis is hugged by a boy at the Sao Jeromino Emiliani church during his visit to the Varginha favela in Rio de Janeiro, Thursday. Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO - Pope Francis underlined his mission to lead a “church for the poor” Thursday, preaching against “selfishness and individualism” in an uplifting address to a rain-soaked Brazilian slum.

In a rally cry on behalf of the world’s have-nots, history’s first Latin American pope railed against inequality and corruption and called for a “culture of solidarity.”

He was cheered by residents of the Varginha favela who hung out of windows and stood on rooftops just to get a glimpse he gave his address from a vast, muddy soccer field.

“You are not alone,” he assured the crowd, prompting a roar of approval. “The church is with you, the Pope is with you.”

His visit to the favela – one of the most notorious of Rio’s impoverished crime-ridden shanty towns – was the latest sign of his determination that the Roman Catholic Church should speak on behalf of the world’s poorest people.

It also provided another headache for security officials on his visit to Brazil, which has already seen throngs of well-wishers mob his car. Officials wearing ponchos lined up in the rain to protect the papal convoy as it passed through the area. 

Varginha is known locally as the "Gaza Strip" for its spiraling violence between rival drug gangs.

The area was recently "pacified" by police – a policy of flooding the area with heavily armed officers, both uniformed and plainclothes, to form a visible presence to disrupt and disperse criminal activity.

As the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis regularly visited the poorest, most dangerous areas of that city, and he specifically asked that Varginha be added to his schedule. An estimated 1.2 million people, or 22 percent of Rio’s population, live in favelas.

“Everything that is shared is multiplied,” the pope said. “Only when we are able to share do we become truly rich. The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty.”

He said the people of Brazil “can offer the world a valuable lesson in solidarity,” adding: “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.

“Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices. The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: it is the culture of solidarity that does so, seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters.”

Brazil, home to the world's biggest population of Catholics with over 120 million faithful, is an apt locale for the pope to remind the world of inequality. A recent decade of economic growth in the country raised incomes for many, but tens of millions of Brazilians still live in poverty or with little more than the basics to get by.

Addressing the mostly young crowd, he said: “Dear young friends, you have a particular sensitivity towards injustice, but you are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good.

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“To you and to all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good, do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it. “

In his customarily humble style, the Pope added: “I would have liked to knock on every door, to say "good morning", to ask for a glass of cold water, to take a cafezinho, to speak as one would to family friends…but Brazil is so vast! How wonderful it is to be welcomed with such love, generosity, and joy.”

Earlier Thursday, Pope Francis was presented with the keys to Rio de Janeiro by a 15-year-old disabled athlete, Guilherme de Lima. He told the pontiff that he was hoping to compete in the 2016 Paralympic Games, according to local newspaper O Povo.

In a short ceremony at the city’s municipal palace, he placed his hand on former Brazilian basketball player Oscar Schmidt, who suffers from brain cancer, and blessed the flags of the Olympic and Paralympic games.

NBC News' Henry Austin contributed to this report.

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