Pope leads pep rally at Vatican, meets with Merkel


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VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Francis lamented that investment losses by banks trigger more alarm in the economic crisis than the struggle of people to feed their families, as he led a huge rally Saturday to invigorate the church's moral conscience, hours after he held talks at the Vatican about the economic crisis with Germany's leader.

Some 200,000 people, from Europe, Asia and the pope's native South America, filled St. Peter's Square and nearby streets to join Francis in hours of prayer, music and speeches aimed at encouraging Catholics to strengthen their faith and making morality play a greater role in everyday life.

`'If investments, the banks plunge, this is a tragedy, if families are hurting, if they have nothing to eat, well, this is nothing, this is our crisis today," Francis told the crowd, insisting that the true crisis is one of morale values.

Francis said his church "opposes this mentality" and pledged that it will be dedicated to "the poor people."

Earlier in the day, the pope met privately with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made a brief visit to Rome, mindful of the importance of Christian voters back home ahead of an election she faces in September. She joined the pope in expressing concern about the many victims of Europe's economic crisis.

Francis, who is Argentine, has picked up on campaigns by the two previous popes, the Polish John Paul II and German Benedict XVI, to reinvigorate what the Catholic church sees as flagging religious enthusiasm on a continent with Christian roots, including dwindling number of churchgoers in much of Western Europe, and a decline in morality.

"I see continuity in the missionary aspect, in becoming aware of the importance of Christianity for our Christian roots," said Merkel, adding that the `'simple and touching words" of Francis, who was elected pontiff two months ago, are already reaching people.

The vast cobblestone square outside St. Peter's Basilica is traditionally the boundary for pontiffs greeting the faithful at outdoor Vatican gatherings. But Francis kept going in his pope-mobile past the edge of the square as he waved cheerfully and sometimes blew kisses to the enthusiastic crowd, which the Vatican said numbered some 200,000.

He was driven halfway down the Rome boulevard that leads from the square to the Tiber River before turning back.

Merkel's Christian Democrat party depends heavily on support from Protestant and Catholic voters in Germany, and the 45-minute chat and photo opportunity in the Apostolic Palace could be a welcome campaign boost for a leader largely identified by Europe's economically suffering citizens as a champion of debt reduction, including painful austerity across much of the continent.

For its part, the Vatican is eager for allies in its campaign to anchor European societies more solidly in their heritage of Christian roots. The church also seeks support on behalf of Christians who face persecution in the world.

During the rally, Francis embraced one of the speakers, Paul Bhatti, whose brother Shahbaz, a Pakistani government minister, was assassinated in 2011 after urging reform of a blasphemy law in Pakistan that had targeted Christians.

But the suffering of Europeans caught in the continent's grip of joblessness and other economic woes also dominated the pope's concerns. On Thursday, Francis blasted what he called a `'cult of money" in a global financial system that ends up tyrannizing, not helping, the world's poor.

`'It's not just an economic crisis," but an existential problem depressing morale, Francis told the rally Saturday. `'It's a deep crisis. We just cannot worry about ourselves ... close ourselves in a sense of helplessness." The pontiff urged people to help the needy, especially on the margins of societies.

Merkel, asked by reporters about the pope's scathing criticism of the global financial system, said they had spoken about regulation of financial markets.

"The regulation of the financial markets is our central problem, our central task," Merkel said. "We are moving ahead, but we are not yet where we want to be, where we could say that a derailment of the guard rails of social market won't happen again."

Merkel added: "It ought to be like this: The economy is there to serve the people. In the last few years, this hasn't been the case at all everywhere."

Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and especially Greece have seen governments concentrate on debt reduction while slashing state spending. With growth stymied, unemployment, especially among young people, has soared. Businesses, many of them family-run in southern Europe, have failed as bank lending dried up.

The chancellor said the pope had stressed that the world needs a strong and just Europe.

Merkel is campaigning for re-election in September's general election. Half of Germany's population is Catholic. In Bavaria there is a strong conservative and Catholic tradition.

According to a Vatican statement, Francis and Merkel also discussed safeguarding human rights, the persecutions faced by Christians and religious freedom.

___

AP correspondent Kirsten Grieshaber contributed from Berlin.


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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