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Argentine priests defend Pope Francis over 'shameful' Milei attacks

By Lucila Sigal

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Priests from poor districts in Buenos Aires held a mass on Tuesday to defend Argentine Pope Francis after radical right-wing presidential candidate Javier Milei denounced him as an "imbecile" and "representative of evil".

Milei, an outsider libertarian economist, is leading in the polls ahead of an Oct. 22 general election, with brash campaign criticism of his political rivals resonating with some voters angry with a cost of living crisis due to 113% inflation.

The former media 'shock jock' commentator has made a series of attacks on the pope, calling him an "imbecile who defends social justice", a "son of a bitch preaching communism" and "the representative of the evil one on Earth."

"He has called Pope Francis insults like an imbecile and worse things," said Buenos Aires priest Lorenzo "Toto" De Vedia, who noted the long-running insults have gained more notoriety as Milei's popularity grows.

"That is why we are having this mass today."

A Milei spokesperson declined to comment on Tuesday.

Pope Francis, 87, lived modestly when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, commuting by public transport and keeping a low profile when he went to help in deprived neighborhoods of the city. His conduct earned him the nickname "Pope of the slums."

"It is shameful for a candidate to say these things. To say that social justice is bullshit, excuse my language, when justice starts from the gospel," said Priest José María "Pepe" Di Paola during the mass.

Some churchgoers held photos of the pontiff in their hands.

The Pope, who has not returned to his homeland since taking office 10 years ago in part because of political tensions in the country, has said he could travel there in 2024, though it is unknown if he would do so if Milei wins the presidency.

Argentina has triple-digit inflation, 40% poverty and a constantly devaluing currency. The worst economic crisis in decades has sparked anger with traditional politics and fueled the triumph of Milei, who led an August primary vote with 30%.

(Reporting by Lucila Sigal; Additional reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco; Writing by Anna-Catherine Brigida, Editing by William Maclean)