Pope Francis waves as he leaves after visiting the parish of San Michele Archangelo in Rome February 8, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito. * Editors: This photo can only be used with RNS-VATICAN-REFORM, transmitted on Feb. 9, 2015 or with RNS-POPE-ITINERARY, originally transmitted on June 30, 2015.

Pope plans to chew coca leaves in Bolivia

(RNS) Pope Francis waves as he leaves after visiting the parish of San Michele Archangelo in Rome February 8, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito. * NOTE: This photo can only be used with RNS-VATICAN-REFORM, transmitted Feb. 9, 2015.

(RNS) Pope Francis waves as he leaves after visiting the parish of San Michele Archangelo in Rome February 8, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito. * NOTE: This photo can only be used with RNS-VATICAN-REFORM, transmitted Feb. 9, 2015.


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LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) Pope Francis has told the Bolivian government that he would like to chew coca leaves when he visits the Andean country next month, a Bolivian minister said on state television and radio on Sunday.

Situated at around 11,975 feet above sea level, La Paz is one of the world's highest capital cities and for centuries local people have chewed coca leaves to ward off the effects of altitude.

Although it is the key ingredient in cocaine, the unprocessed leaf is legal to use and still widely chewed in Bolivia and other Andean countries. Many indigenous people, including Bolivian President Evo Morales, defend its use and consider it a sacred plant.

"We offered (the Pope) coca tea or something for the altitude," Culture Minister Marko Machicao said an interview with broadcasters.

"He has specifically requested that he wants to chew coca, so we will be awaiting the Holy Father with the sacred coca leaf," he said.

The Vatican was not immediately available to comment on Sunday (June 28).

In his second official visit to Latin America since his 2013 election, the Argentine pope will be in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay between July 6 and 12.

He has made speaking out in defence of the poor and downtrodden a major plank of his papacy.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, Writing by Rosalba O'Brien.)