Pope Francis visits S. Korea with message of peace
14 Aug 2014
Seoul: August 14, 2014. (By Shim Sun-ah) Pope Francis arrived in South Korea on Thursday, the first visit by a pontiff to Seoul in 25 years, carrying a message of peace and reconciliation for the divided Korean Peninsula.
The five-day visit, his first to Asia since taking over the papacy from his predecessor Benedict XVI in March 2013, is also seen as a reflection of the Vatican's emphasis on the small but growing Catholic flocks in South Korea and other Asian countries.
The pope's plane touched down at an air base just southeast of Seoul at 10:15 a.m., where South Korean President Park Geun-hye was present to greet the spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
As the pontiff stepped slowly off his Alitalia charter jet onto a red-carpeted tarmac, Park approached him near the plane and clasped his hand.
"I sincerely welcome your visit," Park said. "I hope your visit would deliver warm comfort and serve to open an era of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula."
The pontiff replied, "I'm also pleased to be in South Korea, and I came here with that deep in my mind."
Some 50 ranking government officials, local Catholic church leaders and people representing rank-and-file Catholics and those in the social minority were present at the airport to welcome the pope.
The officials and church leaders included foreign minister Yun Byung-se, Kim Hee-beom, first vice culture minister who acts as culture minister, Bishop Peter Kang U-il, head of the Korean Catholic Bishops' Conference and Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung.
Also among those who greeted the pope at the airport were four members of families who lost their loved ones in the April 16 Sewol ferry sinking that claimed more than 300 lives.
Francis, known for his sincerity and frugality, then took a Soul compact car made by South Korean automaker Kia Motors for a short trip to the Vatican Embassy, where he will spend nights during his stay in the capital.
The pope will hold a private Mass there before heading to the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, where an official welcoming ceremony will be hosted by President Park.
After the ceremony, Park and the pontiff will hold talks and deliver speeches at a separate session in the presidential office, according to Park's office.
Details of their planned speeches are not available, though Park is expected to touch on inter-Korean relations from a humanitarian perspective while the pope is expected to send a message of peace and one that advocates reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula.
Park and the pope "are likely to discuss humanitarian issues," not political ones during their meeting, presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook told reporters.
Among the highlights of the pope's five-day trip are his participation in an Asian Catholic youth festival and a ceremony to beatify 124 Korean martyrs.
The Holy Father is also scheduled to meet students who survived the April 16 ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives and the victims' families on his second day.
On his final day, the pontiff is to celebrate a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula at Seoul's Myeongdong Cathedral and deliver a message of peace for the divided Koreas and East Asia.
Koreans have a distinctive history of Catholicism -- the religion was introduced not by foreigners but by indigenous intellectuals and scholars who studied its teachings. But Catholics were persecuted for nearly a hundred years during the 18th and 19th centuries by Korean rulers who feared the religion's rapid spread would undermine the nation's Confucianism-based ruling ideology.
South Korea has more than 5.4 million Catholics, about 11 percent of the country's 49 million people, according to figures from the church. In comparison, the share for the entire Asian continent is 3.2 percent. The number of South Korean Catholics has risen more than fourfold from about 1.3 million in 1980 to 5.4 million in 2013.