UNITED NATIONS -- Pope Francis, sounding themes he has proclaimed since his arrival in the United States, called on world leaders to protect the environment and the defenseless in his speech Friday morning before the 70th meeting of the General Assembly.

"In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged," he said, speaking in Spanish that was simultaneously translated.

He received applause when he declared that the rights of the "vast ranks of the excluded" and the environment "must be forcefully affirmed."

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And he was applauded when he said that "the poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses for three serious reasons: They are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today's widespread and quietly growing 'culture of waste.' "

Before the pope's speech, Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark, president of the UN General Assembly, said the pontiff and the UN were "indeed united by the same concerns," including the environment and the "plight of displaced peoples."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of the pope's "resounding voice of compassion."

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Although other popes have addressed the 193-member body, Francis is the first to come at its opening, three days before the official start of the General Debate in which leaders outline their vision for the UN for the year.

Though Francis spent the first part of the speech praising the UN's achievements, he said that the international body needed to reform its decision-making procedure.

All countries, not just a select few, should have a voice in that process, he said.

"The need for greater equity is especially true in the case of those bodies with effective executive capability," Francis said. " . . . This will help limit every kind of abuse or usury, especially where developing countries are concerned."

Francis' speech came hours before the opening of a three-day special summit to adopt a sustainable development agenda -- an ambitious set of goals to reduce poverty, inequality and improve the environment.

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In June, the pope issued an encyclical on climate change, the first ever on the environment.

In his UN speech Friday, he painted the importance of addressing environmental issues in stark terms.

"The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity can threaten the very existence of the human species," he said. And he made a case for the "right of the environment," that "any harm done to the environment . . . is harm done to humanity."

He touched an array of other global issues -- from the need to educate girls to the pernicious effects of drug trafficking

He also spoke of the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons and to work "tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples." He also pointed to the painful situation of the Middle East, North Africa and other areas where Christians and others "have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property."

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And, as he has in the past, he stressed the importance of people over policy: "Not only in cases of religious or cultural persecution but in every situation of conflict as in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and the Great Lakes region, real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be."

Appealing to the "respect for the sacredness of every human life," he spoke eloquently about "those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic" and of our contemporary world "so apparently connected . . . experiencing a growing and steady social fragmentation."