Pope Francis kicks off Asia tour with Buddhist temple visit

Bangkok (AFP) –


Pope Francis will visit one of Thailand's famed gilded temples Thursday to meet the supreme Buddhist patriarch, on the first full day of his Asian tour aimed at promoting religious harmony.

The 82-year-old pontiff is on his first visit to Buddhist majority Thailand, where he will spend four days before setting off to Japan.

His packed schedule a day after touching down in Bangkok includes a meeting with the king and the prime minister before leading an evening mass expected to draw tens of thousands of people from across Thailand, where just over 0.5 percent of the population is Catholic.

He also has an appointment with the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch at the glittering gold Ratchabophit temple in Thailand's historic old quarter, built 150 years ago by Thailand's former king mixing traditional and gothic styles.

It is a highly symbolic visit for the head of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics, who carries a message of peace, religious tolerance and nuclear disarmament on his sweep through Asia.

"Pope Francis always respects other religions, always treats his counterparts with respect... that's why he would like to pay respect to the leader" of the Buddhist faith in Thailand, said Chainarong Monthienvichienchai, who helped with some of the visit planning.

Before arriving, Francis praised the Southeast Asian country as a "multi-ethnic nation", and hoped his trip would strengthen the Catholic community's bonds of friendship with "many Buddhist brothers and sisters".

Earlier Thursday the Pope was met by Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Cha-O-Cha at government house for a red carpet welcome with dozens of top officials.

He was accompanied by his cousin Sister Ana Rosa, who has lived in Thailand for decades and will be accompanying the pontiff as a translator.

In a speech to civil society, officials and diplomats, he said the visit with the patriarch was "a sign of the importance and urgency of promoting friendship and interreligious dialogue".

The Pope's trip to Thailand is the first papal trip to the country since pope John Paul II visited in 1984.

It coincides with the 350th anniversary of the first Catholic missionaries who established the "Mission de Siam" in the late 17th century.

Pope Francis arrived Wednesday in the Thai capital where he was greeted by cheering worshippers who lined the streets hoping for a glimpse of the Catholic leader in his motorcade.

The pope, who years ago had hoped to be a missionary in Japan, has made strong calls for the ban of the "immoral" use of nuclear weapons.

Since Francis' election six years ago, he has made two trips to Asia, visiting the Philippines and Sri Lanka in 2014, followed by Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017.