Formal welcome: Pope Francis and Park inspecting a guard of honour upon his arrival at Seoul Airport in Seongnam City, South Korea. - EPA
SEOUL: Pope Francis 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.
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 airspace, 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.
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% 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. — AFP