Pope's Asia visit: Sri Lanka wary, while Philippines in frenzy

Pope's Asia visit: Sri Lanka wary, while Philippines in frenzy
A woman looks at souvenir pictures of Pope Francis on sale inside a religious store in Manila January 5, 2015. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Manila, Philippines on January 15-19. Pope Francis pictures cost 75 pesos ($1.70) each.

MANILA - Pope Francis is making his second trip to Asia next week as head of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church, touching base with followers in "one of the great frontiers" of the Catholic faith.

The pontiff will visit the Philippines, which is already in a frenzy not seen since the equally charismatic John Paul II visited in 1995.

The Pope will first make a three-day stop in Sri Lanka, where Catholics make up just 6 per cent of the nation's population of 21 million.

But a spike in violent incidents ahead of tomorrow's presidential election in the South Asian nation is casting a long shadow over the papal visit from Jan 13-15.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, roiled by an internal party revolt, is fighting to win a third term. Some prominent Catholic priests had asked the Vatican to put off the visit, saying Mr Rajapaksa may use it to rally support for his government.

From Sri Lanka, the Pope will fly to the Philippines, where the mood is much more festive.

The nation of 80 million Catholics will be on a five-day holiday.

Government and private offices will be shut, and classes suspended until he leaves on Jan 19.

Airlines have already cancelled some domestic and international flights on the days that the pontiff and his entourage will use Manila's airports.

Nearly one-fifth of the Philippines' 150,000-strong police force, backed by about 7,000 soldiers, will be deployed to control the expected crowds of millions jostling for a glimpse of a figure who may be the most popular human being on the planet.

The papal visit - the fourth to be hosted by the Philippines after those of Paul VI in 1970 and John Paul II in 1981 and 1995 - is seen as reinvigorating the Catholic faith in the country.

Four in five Filipinos are Catholics, but the country's Catholic population not only has not grown, but has even shrunk slightly in recent years.

A government report has said that just 20 per cent attend Mass regularly.

Overall, Pope Francis' forays into Asia - his second, after he visited South Korea last year - "reflect the Church's renewed attention to this predominant portion of humanity of today and of tomorrow", said the Vatican's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.

He said the world's biggest continent is "a boundless terrain of evangelisation, of proclamation of the Gospel in very varied cultural, social and political situations, often very difficult".

"Therefore, it is one of the great frontiers of the Church of our time," said Father Lombardi.

While the Philippines has the world's third-largest Catholic population, only 3 per cent of Asia's 4.4 billion population are Catholics.

"So, there is room for enlarging the numbers of Christians," Father Ciro Benedettini, the Vatican's deputy spokesman, told online news agency Rappler.

This article was first published on January 7, 2015.
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