Bridge from El Paso to Mexico draws papal enthusiasts

People pass an image of Pope Francis on their way to a route where he is scheduled to pass in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. The sign displays a quote in Spanish by Pope Francis that reads: "This is the peace of Jesus: he's a person, it's a big gift." The pontiff is scheduled to wrap up his trip to Mexico on Wednesday with a visit in a Ciudad Juarez prison just days after a riot in another lockup killed 49 inmates and a stop at the Texas border when immigration is a hot issue for the U.S. presidential campaign. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Pope Francis won’t step foot in El Paso on Wednesday, but his presence across the border in Ciudad Juarez was still being widely felt in the West Texas city.

Thousands of people from El Paso as well as other parts of the U.S. were expected to make the short trip over the various bridges that link the cities to attend an outdoor Mass that is expected to be attended by more than 200,000 people and will cap Francis’ visit to the Latin American country. Thousands more were expected to watch a livestream from the Sun Bowl stadium at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Francis arrived Wednesday morning in Juarez, greeted by hundreds of people in bleachers set up at the city’s airport.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of pedestrians walked across the Bridge of the Americas into Juarez. Volunteers from the Catholic Diocese handed out free water bottles to those crossing the bridge, the port of entry that is closest to where the Mass in Juarez will be held.

One of the pedestrians, Luis Trillo, did so despite pain from arthritis in his legs. The elderly man said he was excited to hear the pope’s blessing at the Mass.

El Paso resident Maria Hermosillo, 35, said she was going to the Mass alone because she couldn’t find anybody else to go with her.

“I’m very excited to be in the presence of the spirit that the pope has and his message,” she said.

While the Mass will be held in a large field in Juarez, close to the U.S.-Mexico border, that many will be able to see from downtown El Paso, people will not be able to get close to the border on the U.S. side as officials have closed down several downtown neighborhoods and a portion of a border highway.

Just before the start of his Mass in Juarez, Francis was expected to make a short walk to the border fence along the Rio Grande, which separates the two countries, and offer a prayer for migrants on the other side and for those who died trying to get to the U.S. A group of about 500 invited people, including migrants, refugees and religious leaders, will be on the U.S. side.

Religious leaders and migrants rights advocates said during a news conference in El Paso that the pope’s prayer for immigrants will send a message that’s not political but humanitarian.

“Because something has political dimensions it doesn’t mean that it does not also have moral dimensions and it is the moral dimensions that our holy father will be addressing,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, who is also president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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