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Pope Francis will make a highly sensitive visit to Canada as planned next month, the Vatican confirmed Thursday, despite problems with his knee that caused him to postpone a trip to Africa.
The programme was released for the July 24-30 visit to Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit, where the pontiff will meet with Indigenous survivors of abuse committed at residential schools run by the Catholic Church.
The 85-year-old has cancelled numerous events in recent months due to pain in his right knee that has forced him to use a wheelchair at official events, prompting intense speculation about his health -- and his future.
However, the trip to Canada is an important step in his efforts to address the global scandal over sexual abuse of children by clergy and decades of cover-up.
Pope Francis is expected to repeat an apology he delivered to Canadian delegations who visited the Vatican in April.
"We know that the Holy Father was deeply moved by his encounter with Indigenous Peoples in Rome earlier this year, and that he hopes to build on the important dialogue that took place," said Canadian Archbishop Richard Smith, who is coordinating the visit.
"We pray this pilgrimage will serve as another meaningful step in the long journey of healing, reconciliation and hope."
Around 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were enrolled from the late 1800s to the 1990s in 139 residential schools across Canada, as part of a government policy of forced assimilation.
They spent months or years isolated from their families, language and culture, and many were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers.
Thousands are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect. More than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered since May 2021 at the schools.
- Pope's 'limitations' -
During what will be the first papal trip to Canada since John Paul II visited in 2002, and the fourth ever, Francis will travel to the west of the country, the east and far north.
Canada's Catholic Bishops Conference said the "very busy schedule" would focus on reconciliation but also provide a chance for the wider Catholic faithful to meet their spiritual leader.
It added: "Due to his advanced age and limitations, it is expected that participation by Pope Francis at public events will be limited to approximately one hour."
Francis suffers chronic arthritis in his knee, according to Vatican sources, and has also spoken of an injured ligament.
On June 10, the Vatican postponed a trip scheduled for early July to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo "at the request of his doctors", to avoid jeopardising ongoing therapy on his knee.
A scheduled trip to Lebanon in June was also postponed due to health reasons, according to that country's government -- although the Vatican had never confirmed the visit.
The schedule changes have sparked fresh speculation about the future of Francis, who was elected pope in 2013 after his predecessor Benedict XVI resigned. The German pope had cited his declining mental and physical health.
However, a Vatican source told AFP earlier this month that speculation Francis might also be considering stepping down was far-fetched.
"In the pope's entourage, the majority of people don't really believe in the possibility of a resignation," the source said.
Rumours that he might step down also flared last year after the pope underwent colon surgery, prompting him to tell a Spanish radio station that the idea "hadn't even crossed my mind".