He's the first gay activist to get a public sit-down with the pope

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Pope Francis will hold his first-ever public meeting with a gay activist next month during a visit to one of South America's most Catholic and conservative countries.

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Church leaders in Paraguay have invited Simon Cazal, the 35-year-old executive director of the LGBT rights group SOMOSGAY, to a July 11 roundtable with a group of social organizations who will meet with the pope on the last stop of his three-nation South American tour.

The gathering will mark the first time Pope Francis has sat down with an openly gay activist in public, according to LGBT Catholic church advocates. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which promotes gay rights in the Roman Catholic Church, said Francis has conducted pastoral activities with gay groups, but always in private.

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The pope's decision to hold his historic encounter in Paraguay is interesting. The South American nation is one of the least gay-friendly countries in the region. The meeting request also came after Cazal’s group openly criticized Paraguayan church leaders earlier this year, when SOMOSGAY issued a statement urging “religious leaders to follow the Holy Father’s example of openness” and “to abandon the positions of intolerance and insults dehumanizing LGBT people.”

While several countries in South America have moved ahead of the United States on gay rights issues, Paraguay has lagged behind on the issues of same-sex marriage and other legal protections for the LGBT community.

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In some ways, the pope's invitation to Cazal shames the country's leadership. President Horacio Cartes, who as a candidate two years ago said he would "shoot himself in the balls" if his son ever wanted to marry another man, has never met with Cazal. So the activist is hoping his sit-down with the pope will give momentum to the LGBT movement.

“The social climate is a big challenge for a movement like ours,” Cazal told Fusion in a telephone interview from Asuncion.

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Cazal says Paraguay’s history is partly to blame. The landlocked country, which borders Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, was once home to one of Latin America’s most enduring dictatorships under former dictator Gen. Alfredo Stroessner (1945-1989). Homosexuals were routinely persecuted under Stroessner's regime, including a notorious incident in 1959 when 108 men suspected of being gay were rounded up and tortured. Even today, the term "108" is used as a pejorative for homosexual in Paraguay.

Many of today’s political leaders were shaped by that period, Cazal said. But the LGBT movement is ready to put the past where it belongs…in the past.

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“Young people in Paraguay today didn’t grow up under the military dictatorship, so they have a different perspective on the world,” Cazal said.

Not everyone is celebrating the historic meeting with the pope. Cazal says he’s received hate mail from conservatives who don't want the meeting to take place.

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Even the LGBT community is divided over the pontiff's visit. At least one other gay group turned down an invitation to participate in the meeting. "There is a lot of marketing around the Pope," Rosa Posa, the head of the lesbian rights group, Aireana, said in published comments. "If they think he's going to listen, well, good luck."

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In his meeting with the pope, Cazal says he plans to bring up the issue of violence toward LGBT people. He cited a march last year where riot police were used to disperse a crowd of LGBT protestors demonstrating for gay rights outside of a meeting of the Organization of American States in Asuncion. At the time, thousands of Paraguayans staged a countermarch led by a Catholic bishop, calling it a "pro-family" demonstration.

Cazal thinks the meeting is a positive, but isn't overly expectant that it will result in a new chapter in relations between the Church and the LGBT community.

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"I see a lot of contradictions in his public messages," he says of the pope. "But we have to live with those contradictions, and realize there are still limits at the Vatican."

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