Pope in S. Korea on first Asia visit for 15 years

Pope in S. Korea on first Asia visit for 15 years
The pope hopes his visit would help promote reconciliation in the Korean peninsula.

SEOUL - Pope Francis on Thursday kicked off a five-day visit to South Korea fuelled by the Vatican's desire to expand the Church in Asia despite challenges posed by governments like atheist China.

Regional tensions were underlined just minutes before the pontiff stepped off his plane, with neighbouring nuclear-armed North Korea firing a series of short-range rockets into the sea off its east coast.

Smiling broadly and waving, Francis was welcomed by President Park Geun-Hye and a reception committee that included two North Korean defectors and relatives of those killed in April's ferry disaster that left 300 people - mostly schoolchildren - dead.

Responding to Park's wish that his visit would encourage peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, the pope replied that he had come "with that deep in my heart", Yonhap news agency reported.

Francis is expected to send a message of peace to Pyongyang when he holds a special inter-Korean "reconciliation" mass in Seoul next week.

North Korea had been invited to send a group of Catholics to attend the event but declined, citing anger at upcoming South Korea-US military drills.

In line with his no-frills papacy, Francis left the airport squeezed into the back of a compact Kia hatchback that he had specially requested for his visit.

Message to China

The flight from Italy flew over China, allowing him to exercise papal protocol and send an unprecedented goodwill message to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"Upon entering Chinese air space, I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and wellbeing upon the nation," the radio message said.

Beijing and the Vatican have been at loggerheads since China severed ties with the Holy See in 1951, with both sides tussling for control of China's Catholic community.

The choice of South Korea for the first papal visit to Asia in 15 years was reward for one of the region's fastest-growing, most devoted and most influential Roman Catholic communities.

Although Catholics comprise just a little over 10 per cent of the 50 million population, the pope's visit has generated a lot of public excitement, with welcome banners lining the streets of Seoul, and shops doing a brisk trade in everything from mini Francis dolls to commemorative coins.

Around one million people are expected to descend on downturn Seoul for an open-air mass on Saturday that will see Francis beatify 124 martyrs persecuted during the early days of the Korean Catholic Church in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Expansion in Asia

But the real goal is longer-term and much wider-ranging.

The pope will bring a message about the "future of Asia", and will use his trip to "speak to all the countries on the continent", the Vatican's number two, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in a television interview.

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