By Philip Pullella and Marion Giraldo
IQUIQUE, Chile (Reuters) - Pope Francis said on Thursday that it is not Christian to shut out immigrants, urging nations to welcome people whose lives had been "watered down" by poverty, injustice and exploitation.
Francis, whose defense of migrants and refugees has been a key theme of his nearly 5-year-old pontificate, spoke on his last day in Chile before he was due to leave for Peru to start the second and last leg of his Latin American tour.
"There is no Christian joy when doors are closed; there is no Christian joy when others are made to feel unwanted, when there is no room for them in our midst," he said in the homily of Mass on a beach in this city in Chile's far north.
"The cry of the poor is a kind of a prayer; it opens our hearts and teaches us to be attentive," he said from an enormous white stage framed by dune-like desert mountains on one side and the hazy blue of the Pacific Ocean on the other.
The pope has stepped up his defense of immigrants in recent months as migration has become a hot political issue in many countries.
In the United States, lawmakers are still grappling with the fate of so-called dreamers, who were brought to the country illegally as children and now face deportation after decades of living there.
In Europe, the German far-right and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party became a key force last year, and in Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League is expected to make gains in national elections in March.
Francis urged his listeners to be attentive to "all situations of injustice and to new forms of exploitation" including by those who profit from immigrants' problems, such as lack of documentation.
The trials and difficulties of immigrants trying to keep their families together had left many feeling like "their lives had been watered down," he said as 50,000 people faced the stage and the ocean.
WAVE OF ARRIVALS
Chile has had much less immigration than other South American nations, but a stable economy and moderate politics since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990 have made it more attractive to those fleeing economic hardship elsewhere in Latin America.
A wave of recent arrivals from Haiti and Venezuela has increasingly stoked anti-immigrant sentiment in Chile.
The region around Iquique, which means "dreams," in the local indigenous Aymara language, has the country's highest percentage of migrants, according to official statistics.
People from neighboring Peru, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia have been attracted to Chile's northern desert region, home to the majority of mines and a booming service and construction industry in the world's biggest copper exporter.
But many who arrive seeking their fortunes have instead found poverty and exclusion.
"There are many immigrants here who don't have work, who live with very little, in rooms like animals," said Dora Reyes, a Peruvian shopkeeper who moved to Chile two decades ago. "There is still a lot of racism and inequality."
Although immigration remains proportionally low compared with most developed countries, it has grown fivefold over the last 30 years, statistics from the government's immigration service show.
Arrivals from Haiti surged 144 percent in 2015, while those from recession-hit Venezuela soared 192 percent.
(Additional reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)