VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis suggested that hostility to immigrants was driven by irrational fear as he began a trip to Central America on Wednesday amid a standoff over President Donald Trump's promised wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and a new caravan of migrants heading north.
Francis was asked by reporters about the proposed border wall Wednesday on the way to Panama, where he is looking to leave the sex abuse scandals buffeting his papacy behind. Francis responded: "It is the fear that makes us crazy."
The Roman Catholic Church's first Latin American pope and the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy.
Underscoring his firm focus on the issue, Francis met eight refugees living in Rome before heading to the airport for Wednesday's flight.
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He is also expected to offer words of encouragement to young people gathered in Panama for World Youth Day, the church's once-every-three-year pep rally that aims to invigorate the next generation of Catholics in their faith.
Panama Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa said Francis' message is likely to resonate with young Central Americans who see their only future free of violence and poverty in migrating to the U.S. — "young people who often fall into the hands of drug traffickers and so many other realities that our young people face."
The pope is expected to urge young people to create their own opportunities, while calling on governments do their share as well.
The visit is taking place as the U.S. government remains partly shut down in a standoff between the Trump administration and Democrats over funding for Trump's promised border wall.
Francis famously has called for "bridges, not walls." After celebrating Mass in 2016 on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, he denounced anyone who wants to build a wall to keep out migrants as "not Christian."
Crowds are expected to be smaller than usual for this World Youth Day — only about 150,000 people had registered as of last week — but thousands more will certainly throng Francis' main events, which include a vigil and a final Mass on Sunday. The Vatican conceded that the January date doesn't suit school vacations in Europe or North America, both of which typically send huge numbers of pilgrims to World Youth Day gatherings.
Francis' trip, the first in a year packed with foreign travel, comes at a critical moment in the papacy as the Catholic hierarchy globally is facing a crisis in credibility for covering up decades of cases of priests molesting young people.
This is the first papal visit to Panama since St. John Paul II was there during a 1983 regional tour that famously included an unscheduled stop at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Romero had been gunned down by right-wing death squads three years earlier, at the start of El Salvador's civil war, for having spoken out on behalf of the poor.
Pope Francis also confirmed to reporters aboard the papal plane that he plans to go to Japan in November. The pope also said he wants to visit Iraq, but that local church leaders have told him that the security situation is not yet right.
The pontiff has already scheduled trips to United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bulgaria and Macedonia for later this year.