By Girish Gupta
QUITO (Reuters) - Thousands of pilgrims braved wind and rain to camp out overnight for a Mass to be given by Pope Francis on Tuesday in Ecuador's highland capital Quito for an expected million people.
Political protests had been rocking the socialist-ruled nation of 15 million people prior to the pontiff's arrival, but his presence has brought a temporary halt to demonstrations.
Francis is visiting three of the smallest and poorest nations during a week-long tour of his native South America.
At the Bicentenario Park, a former airport where he was due to give Mass mid-morning, some bedraggled faithful camped out for two nights in the extremes of Andean weather - torrential rain, biting wind and blazing sun.
For some, it became too much and at least one fight broke out as people attempted to push in.
Yet most thought the wait worthwhile.
"He is somebody who has really changed the church, changed young people's way of thinking," said Veronica Calderon, a 23-year-old civil engineering student who had arrived at six in the morning the day before the Mass.
"He's not been afraid to be tough with those who are corrupt, those who have damaged the church."
Hawkers walked up and down the lines selling wooden crosses, flags and t-shirts made especially for the trip as well as food and drink. Many used umbrellas to shield themselves both from the downpours and blazing sun when the rain cleared.
Argentine-born Francis spent most of Monday in the coastal city of Guayaquil, delivering a Mass to some 800,000 people before going to a Jesuit-run school to visit a friend he had not seen for three decades.
In the evening, Francis flew back to Quito and met with leftist President Rafael Correa at the presidential palace, specially adorned with 120,000 roses, before blessing those gathered in the square below.
Recent protests over tax hikes have marred the visit somewhat for Correa, though demonstrators declared a moratorium during the trip as a mark of respect.
The pope flies on Wednesday to La Paz, Bolivia, another highland city where oxygen tanks are kept at the airport for arriving passengers who may struggle with the thin air.
That will focus attention on the 78-year-old pope's health as he had part of one lung removed when he was younger after a serious infection.
In Bolivia, Francis is to visit a notoriously violent prison before going to Paraguay where he will meet with social activists.
"It's very important for us that the pope is Latin American. It shows that faith is universal," said Victor Hugo Lobato, a 43-year-old teacher who camped out with his family overnight at the Quito park after a bus trip through the previous night.
Not all in Latin America are impressed with the church. Some say it has curbed progress on issues including women's and gay rights in a traditionally macho region.
"It's not good that the church has so much weight in political decisions," said Andres Caicedo, 35, spokesman for the Ecuadorean Atheist Association.
"It's also inappropriate that in a country that is supposedly secular, we spend so much money on such a visit."
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Jeffrey Benkoe)