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

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.

The last papal visit to Asia was by John Paul II to India in 1999, a glaring 15-year gap for a region where the Church is making some spectacular gains but where Catholics still only account for 3.2 per cent of the population.

"The pope's presence is a powerful symbol of the Vatican's recognition that it is in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that the Church is growing most prominently," said Lionel Jensen, an expert on religion in Asia at the University of Notre Dame.

Francis will have a chance to address believers across the region on Friday when he meets several thousand young Catholics gathered in South Korea for Asian Youth Day.

It is the first papal visit for 25 years to South Korea, which provides a model that the Vatican can only hope other Asian countries might follow.

The economic "miracle" that turned it from a war-devastated backwater to an export powerhouse and Asia's fourth largest economy in a little over five decades, was accompanied by an equally dramatic boom in Christianity.

Christians now comprise the largest religious bloc. While Protestants make up the majority, Catholics are growing faster - accounting for more than 10 per cent of the 50 million population, with tens of thousands of new baptisms every year.