Pope Francis is expected to send out messages of hope, peace and reconciliation as he returns to Asia next week, visiting two nations with painful histories of civil wars and natural disasters: Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
The January 12-19 trip is the Argentine-born pontiff’s seventh since his election in March 2013. He has previously been to Brazil, the Holy Land, South Korea, Albania, the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, and Turkey.
The main goal is “to show compassion, show mercy towards the many people who are suffering,” Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told Vatican Radio.
He said those “suffering from natural disasters, especially in the Philippines; those suffering from structural injustices, like poverty and corruption; those also suffering from the still present consequences of civilian conflict” would receive papal comfort.
Sri Lanka is reeling from an 1983-2009 civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority that left more than 100,000 dead. It was also one of the countries ravaged by the 2004 tsunami, which killed nearly 31,000 Sri Lankans.
Francis was scheduled to celebrate the sainthood of the Blessed Joseph Vaz, a 17th-century missionary priest, and visit a Catholic shrine in Madhu that was caught up in the war between the government and Tamil rebels.
Catholics account for about 6 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million, which is majority Buddhist but also includes sizeable Hindu and Muslim minorities.
“We have been praying that we can see the pope conducting holy Mass in Sri Lanka,” Shelton Perera, one of the thousands who are planning to travel from Galle to Colombo for Vaz’s canonization on Wednesday, told dpa.
The pontiff is also due to meet newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena, who beat incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in a surprising upset January 8.
In the Philippines – Asia’s most Catholic nation, with about 80 per cent of believers – Francis was expected to be given an effusive welcome.
Authorities have declared three days of national holiday to mark the pontiff’s visit Thursday to Monday, during which he would meet survivors of last year’s super typhoon Haiyan and inaugurate a Catholic centre for the poor named after himself.
Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, left more than 7,300 dead or missing, and destroyed the homes of more than 4 million people in November 2013.
Francis, the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years, is trying to make Asia a priority for his papacy. He described the continent as a “great frontier” during a visit to South Korea in August.
The world’s most-populous continent also has the smallest percentage of Catholics. In several nations – such as China, North Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar – they face harassment or persecution.
The pope announced on January 4 that archbishops from Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam would be among the 15 prelates to be promoted cardinals next month.
In Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Francis is expected to connect with the crowds riding on open-topped vehicles. In another outreach gesture, he plans to speak in English, rather than in his native Spanish or Italian, in order to be more easily understood.
Both countries are not new to papal visits. Pope Paul VI was in Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 1970, where he survived a knife attack at Manila airport. John Paul II visited the Philippines in 1981 and 1995, the latter trip taking him also to Sri Lanka. (DPA)