By Caroline Stauffer and Antonio De la Jara
BUENOS AIRES/SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Argentines will cross into Chile next week to see Buenos Aires-born Pope Francis, who has yet to return home despite visiting much of Latin America since his election nearly five years ago.
Some 40,000 young Argentines are heading to one of three Chilean cities the pope is to visit, said Mariano Garcia, 36, Argentina's national coordinator of youth ministry.
"The visit is very important for all the youth of Argentina," Garcia said. "(Francis) is one of the great leaders, not just for young people inside the Catholic Church but for all young people."
The first Latin American pope made his inaugural overseas trip as pontiff to Brazil four months after his election on March, 13, 2013. He has since visited Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Mexico, Cuba and Colombia, and travels to Peru after Chile.
But - possibly wary about getting embroiled in Argentina's often volatile politics - he is yet to schedule a visit to his home country, which is Latin America's third-largest economy and fourth-largest country by population.
Asked on Thursday why the pope had not yet visited Argentina, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said only that the pope will fly over Argentina on his way to Chile and will send a customary message from his plane to the head of state. "It should be an interesting telegram," Burke said.
The pope, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has met with Argentina's President Mauricio Macri at the Vatican. But as a sharp critic of global capitalism, some question the pope's affinity for Macri, a scion of one of Argentina's wealthiest families.
Francis is clearly disapproving of governments that do not tackle exclusion and have "conservative economic views," said Daniel Menendez, coordinator of Buenos Aires-based community organizing group Barrios de Pie and one of around 500 activists planning to travel to the Patagonian city of Temuco, just over 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Argentina.
Macri has said he hopes his presidency will be judged on his government's ability to lower Argentina's poverty rate.
The pope is no ally of much of the opposition either. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio had a rocky relationship with Argentina's leftist former president, Cristina Fernandez, now a senator, as well as her late husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner.
Kirchner avoided Bergoglio by shunning a traditional Mass in Buenos Aires cathedral to mark an important national anniversary and often directed harsh words toward the clergy.
While she later sought to portray herself as close to the pope, Fernandez's relationship with the then archbishop soured when the Church praised a chaotic uprising by farmers in 2008 and again when Congress passed a law in 2010 making Argentina the first Latin American country to approve gay marriage.
During Argentina's 1976-1983 military dictatorship, when as many as 30,000 people were killed by the state in a crackdown on left-wing opponents, the Church's reputation was tarnished by evidence that some high-ranking clergy had supported the military.
Although that did not apply to Francis, two priests kidnapped by the military have accused him of not doing enough to protect them when he was leader of the Jesuits in Argentina, a position he held from 1973 to 1979.
The Vatican has denied the claims, saying Bergoglio worked behind the scenes to free them.
"He is fully aware what an official visit to Argentina would mean and the expectations he would be awakening ... beyond the political use that could be given to his visit," said Guillermo Holzmann, a political analyst in Santiago.
'NOT JUST ARGENTINA'
Menendez said he hoped Francis would address some issues relevant to Argentina in Temuco, a city at the heart of territory claimed by the indigenous Mapuche, who have clashed with authorities in both Chile and Argentina.
"We have seen the pope intervene in important conflicts like the Cuba embargo and the Colombia peace process," he said. "We believe it is important to make a call for peace and dialogue."
Anticipating heavy traffic on curvy mountain roads, Argentina will keep border crossings open for longer and increase staffing.
The province of Mendoza, site of one of the busiest crossings into Chile, said up to 800,000 Argentines could make the trip, though a foreign ministry spokeswoman said the number would be much lower.
Many Argentines hold out hope the pope will soon return. In the meantime, they will settle for seeing him in the southern cone.
"We are anxious for the moment we get the good news of Francis' return to Argentina," said Garcia. "But the important thing is to accompany him. Francis belongs to the world now, not just Argentina."
(Reporting by Caroline Stauffer in Buenos Aires and Antonio de la Jara in Santiago, Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Vatican City, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)