La Paz: Pope Francis greeted Bolivians with a message of inclusion Wednesday, a central theme of his three-nation tour to his home continent, as he arrived in South America`s poorest nation.
Landing in La Paz early in the evening, thousands of faithful -- many of whom had spent a chilly night outdoors waiting for him -- welcomed the pope as choirs sang in the indigenous Aymara language.
He was met by Evo Morales, a champion of Latin America`s radical left and Bolivia`s first indigenous president.
Francis`s trip to Bolivia follows a four-day visit to Ecuador, where he celebrated two massive outdoor masses and pleaded for "dialogue" in a country rocked by anti-government protests. On Friday he will travel to Paraguay.
The pope, the first from South America, arrived in the thin air of Bolivia`s El Alto airport, at more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level.
Concerned authorities had extra oxygen tanks on hand for the Argentine-born pope, who lost a lung during his youth.
Morales` government said that Francis was expected to chew coca leaves to mitigate the ill effects of high altitude -- a common practice in the country, where the leaf is an important part of life despite its other, illicit use to produce cocaine.
Francis welcomed the "important steps" Morales` government had made "to include wide sectors in the country`s economic, social and political life."
"I am happy to be in this country of singular beauty," said the 78-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who visited the Andean nation at least twice in his youth.
"This is a land blessed by its people, with its cultural reality and diverse ethnicity, which make for a great richness and create a permanent call for mutual respect and dialogue," he said, appealing for participation by all, "without excluding or rejecting anyone," a central theme of his tour.
Calling the pope his "brother," Morales thanked Francis for "visiting us at home, with a message of hope and liberation."
The Bolivian leader, whose links with the local Catholic Church have been strained since his arrival in office in 2006, has visited Francis at the Vatican two times, in 2013 and 2014.On his way from the airport to La Paz, the pope stopped at the site of the March 1980 assassination by the military of Spanish Jesuit priest Luis Espinal, which occurred at a dark time in the region`s history, two days before Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero was slain.
Francis, the first Jesuit pope, then met government leaders at the presidential palace and visited the city`s main cathedral in Murillo square, where he met civil society leaders.
There the pope called for "reasonable and fair" solutions to conflicts "between fraternal peoples," in a clear allusion to the ongoing dispute between Bolivia and Chile over ocean access.
Due to the tough climate, Francis will stay in the capital for only three hours.In the city of Santa Cruz on Thursday the pope will deliver his sole Bolivian mass at the foot of a giant Christ the Redeemer statue, with more than a million people expected to attend. The day has been declared a holiday.
He is also expected to speak about his new passion -- his defense of "Mother Earth."
In the presence of Francis and Morales, the city will also host the second World Meeting of Popular Movements, an initiative launched at the Vatican last year.
In the meantime, alcohol sales and musical performances have been banned throughout Bolivia during the pope`s trip, and 17,000 police and soldiers have been deployed.
Before leaving for Paraguay on Friday, Francis will visit the huge Palmasola prison, scene of violent gang fighting in 2013 which left 31 people dead.
All three of the countries Francis is visiting are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality mostly afflicting indigenous populations.
Despite his busy schedule the pope has so far displayed impressive energy at all his public events in South America.
The last visit by a pope to Bolivia was a six-day tour by John Paul II in 1988.