Vatican City, Nov 20 (IANS) Pope Francis on Wednesday began his visit to Thailand and Japan, where he will spread a message of peace and promote denuclearisation.
This will be the 82-year-old pontiff’s 32nd international trip and his fourth trip to Asia having visited South Korea in 2014; Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015; and Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017, Efe news reported.
The pope was welcomed at Don Mueang air force base on the outskirts of the capital city by Thai government officials and members of the Catholic church in Thailand.
The first person to greet Francis as he got off the plane was his second cousin Ana Rosa Sivori, a 77-year-old nun who has lived in Thailand for 53 years and will act as the Pope’s translator during his stay.
Jorge Bergolgio, as he was known before becoming pope, was not scheduled to hold any public events on Wednesday. Dozens of well-wishers and school children gathered at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to greet Francis as he arrived by car from the airport.
Thailand: Dialogue with the Buddhists
In Thailand, which has a population of 69 million people, the Catholic community is small with some 389,000 believers (0.3 per cent of the population). The country has just 835 priests, 1,461 nuns and 1,901 catechists.
When then pope John Paul II visited the Asian country in 1984 he encountered the opposition of radical Buddhist groups and King Rama IX was forced to intervene to calm the situation down.
However, the dialogue with the Buddhists has greatly improved since then and recently a delegation of 50 Buddhist monks from the Temple of Wat Pho visited the Vatican to meet with Francis.
The Pope’s visit coincides with the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the first Catholic mission in Siam, as Thailand was known in 1669.
The pontiff’s first official act will be meeting with Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha where he will address the authorities of the kingdom and the diplomatic corps.
Francis will visit the Wat Ratchabophit temple to meet the Supreme Patriarch of Buddhists and visit the St. Louis Pediatric Hospital.
He will also go to the Amphorn Sathan Residential Hall for a private visit to King Maha Vajiralongkorn, considered one of the richest royals in the world and who made the headlines last month after he stripped his royal consort Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi of her rank and titles.
From the palace, the Pope will travel to the national stadium to celebrate Mass, the first of the two he will host in this country.
On his third day in Thailand he will go to the parish of St. Peter in Samphran, Nakhon Pathom province, about 34 kilometers from Bangkok, to meet with religious groups.
He will also visit the shrine of Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, the country’s first martyr priest, to address the bishops of Thailand.
That afternoon, Pope Francis will offer a keynote speech at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok in a meeting with the leaders of other Christian churches and other religions of the nation.
A mass for young people will also be held at Assumption Cathedral.
Japan: Call for nuclear disarmament
Francis will visit Tokyo as well as the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where the United States dropped atomic bombs in 1945 during World War II, devastating their communities.
From ground zero, the pope will make a call for disarmament, especially in countries with nuclear arsenals like the US, Russia, France, UK, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
A call that is timely given the concerns following the withdrawal of the US and Russia from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
In 2018, the production of global nuclear weapons dropped by 4% but the nine nuclear states still have 13,865 nukes of which 3,750 are deployed and some 2,000 are on hair-trigger alert.
The reduction, following the trend of recent years, is due to the implementation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) of 2011 signed by the US and Russia, which combined account for more than 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear arsenal.
But that treaty will expire in 2021 if the world powers, which have not yet initiated discussions on the subject, do not agree to prolong it.
Nagasaki is also the city where the Spanish Jesuit Francisco Javier arrived 470 years ago to evangelize the country. It later became a symbol of the persecution of Catholics.
The pope will visit the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument on Nishizaka Hill built at the place where Jesuit missionaries were crucified on 5 February 1597 by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler who was also known as Japan’s second great unifier.
Despite the persecution that was prevalent, when the Jesuits returned two centuries later, they found the so-called Kakure Kirishitan, the hidden Christians, who went underground to conserve their faith during the Edo period (from the 1630s- 1868).
On November 25, the pope will meet with ten victims of the so-called “triple catastrophe” of Fukushima that in 2011 killed 18,000 people as a result of an earthquake of magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, a tsunami and an accident at the nuclear power plant.
Pope Francis will also visit Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace and will meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and civil and diplomatic authorities.