Pope Francis on Friday made an emotional visit to the 9/11 Memorial in New York to lead prayers for peace after calling for a more humane global system in a speech at the United Nations.
The head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics bowed his head in prayer and laid a white rose at the memorial, dedicated to the nearly 3,000 people killed on September 11, 2001 in the worst attacks on U.S. soil.
The 78-year-old Argentine shook hands and spoke to a group of relatives of victims as well as first responders, before descending into the underground museum, where he lead a multi-faith prayer for peace.
“Francisco, Francisco,” shouted members of a small crowd as the pontiff moved into the museum, where he was joined by around 700 representatives of different religions.
It was the second engagement on a packed New York schedule Friday for the visibly exhausted pope, whose reform-minded approach and humility has earned him a rapturous welcome in the United States.
Earlier on Friday, he went to the UN General Assembly to offer his vision of a better world, calling on the UN Security Council and financial lenders to “limit every kind of abuse and usury.”
In a wide-ranging speech, Francis touched on an array of hot-button topics, including the persecution of Christians, the Iran nuclear deal, drug trafficking — “silently killing millions” — and the rights of girls to an education.
“The international financial agencies should care for the sustainable development of countries and should ensure that they are not subjected to oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence,” Francis said.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, has seen his own country suffer economic crises that have fueled criticism of conditions set by the International Monetary Fund and other institutions.
He also gave his latest passionate plea to protect the environment, as he voiced confidence that a looming UN summit on climate change would reach “effective” agreement in Paris.
He said the universe was “the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator” and that humanity “is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.”
“A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged,” he said.
Francis appealed for peace around the world and made his latest plea for the protection of Christians, as well as others, persecuted by extremists in Syria and Iraq.
The pope offered a strong endorsement of Iran’s agreement with the United States and five other world powers to limit its nuclear program, a day after Francis spoke to the US Congress, where many lawmakers vehemently oppose the deal.
“I express my hope that this agreement will be lasting and efficacious, and bring forth the desired fruits with the cooperation of all the parties involved,” he said.
‘Man and woman’
Pope Francis reserved some of his strongest words for drug trafficking, a scourge that has especially affected Latin America.
“Drug trafficking is by its very nature accompanied by trafficking in persons, money laundering, the arms trade, child exploitation and other forms of corruption,” he said.
Francis, who was selected as pope in 2013, has an avid following even among non-Catholics for his embrace of causes such as climate change and his reform-minded approach to social issues.
In what has perhaps become his most famous remark, Francis said early in his papacy of gay priests, “Who am I to judge?”
But at the United Nations, he signaled that the Church was not ready to champion transgender rights, an issue of growing importance in the United States as gay equality becomes mainstream.
“The defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions,” Francis said.
In a possible allusion to same-sex marriage, Francis warned against an “ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.”
Francis has enjoyed a warm response in the United States, with President Barack Obama welcoming him personally on Wednesday and championing the pontiff’s leadership.
Crowds of well-wishers lined the partially closed streets of New York, waving Vatican flags and holding signs to welcome Francis.
The pope later Friday will deliver a mass to thousands at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
He will later head to Philadelphia, where he will greet huge crowds at the Festival of Families, a Catholic gathering that takes place every three years.