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VATICAN CITY (AP) Pope Francis has greeted hundreds of people in wheelchairs one-by-one part of a special gathering in which rows of seats were removed from a Vatican auditorium to make room for the disabled visitors.

The pontiff, who has made championing the downtrodden a key plank of his papacy, lamented that society tends to "hide physical fragility" and reject the disabled. He encouraged those with physical disabilities to banish any feelings of shame, and become "protagonists" in society as well as the Catholic church.

Some 600 people in wheelchairs waited to have their time with Francis during the event Saturday. He moved down the rows to greet each person, doling out hugs and kisses as well as chatting.