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Pope Benedict XVI has addressed tens of thousands of Latin American faithful, hailing their “great thirst for God” on the eve of a key bishops’ conference.

“The pope loves you!” he exclaimed to the throng of some 35,000 in the immense Aparecida basilica on Saturday. Returning the compliment, the congregation chanted “Bento, Bento!” (which means “Benedict” in Portuguese) for a long moment. The crowd included delegations to the Fifth Episcopal Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean, which the pope was to open in Aparecida on Sunday, capping his five-day visit to Brazil.

“Men and women of Latin America, I know that you have a great thirst for God,” Benedict said. “The pope wants to say to you all: ‘The Church is our house!’

In the Catholic Church we find all that is good, all that is cause for security and comfort.” The pope, who wants to rekindle the missionary spirit in a region where many Catholics are converting to evangelical sects or abandoning religion altogether, hailed priests who have come to Brazil from around the world to help make up for a severe shortage of priests in the country.

“So many challenges, difficult situations to confront, so much generosity, selflessness, sacrifices and privations,” he said, praising the priests for their “total gift to God in the service of your brothers and sisters … in the promotion of justice, solidarity and sharing.”

Former drug addicts have told Pope Benedict XVI moving stories of their hardships and recovery in Brazil.

The Pope also took the opportunity to scold traffickers for the damage they sow across Latin America.

The Pope, on a five-day visit to Brazil in which he has railed against the slack morals and hedonism of modern society, said drug abuse was a scourge in the region.

“I therefore urge the drug dealers to reflect on the grave harm they are inflicting on countless young people and on adults from every level of society,” he said in a speech to recovering heroin and cocaine addicts at the Farm of Hope (Fazenda da Esperanca) rehabilitation centre in the rural town of Guaratingueta.

“God will call you to account for your deeds. Human dignity cannot be trampled upon in this way,” he said.

Thousands of followers sang and waved flags as the Pope, flanked by bodyguards, then walked through the crowd, smiling and shaking hands.

The drugs trade has caused havoc and bloodshed in Latin America, from Colombia, the world’s main source of cocaine, to Brazil, where rival trafficking gangs control many slums.

Although the United Sates was long the key market, Latin American countries suffer from increasing addiction among their own youth, compounding the social woes of poverty and violence.

Rival drug gangs in Mexico have killed about 800 people so far this year in brutal turf wars.

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