Pope to address Thai youth on final full day of Bangkok visit

Bangkok (AFP) –


Pope Francis will meet Friday with teachers and students in Thailand's "small but vibrant" Catholic community on his final full day of a whirlwind Bangkok trip, closing the visit with a mass for the youth.

The Pope is on his first trip to Buddhist-majority Thailand, where just over 0.5 percent of the population is Catholic.

His busy schedule Friday includes meetings with seminarians and catechists at St Peter's Church, built more than 130 years ago on the outskirts of Bangkok.

The last pope to visit Thailand in 1984, John Paul II, also made a stop at the historic parish, where huge crowds gathered Friday to wait for Francis.

"I'm so thrilled to see Papa today... it's an auspicious occasion and my life and health will be blessed," Armee Chermuer told AFP at St Peter's after travelling 10 hours to see the Pope.

Later Francis will visit a shrine for Catholic martyr Nicholas Boonkerd Kitbamrung, before meeting with religious leaders at a university where a young Muslim choir will join other students to sing for him.

It will be a highly symbolic performance for the Pope, who has espoused a message of inter-faith harmony during his four-day trip to Thailand.

He has also spoken about vulnerable women and children, calling for more respect for sex workers and trafficking victims at his mass Thursday evening.

His trip marks 350 years since "the Mission de Siam", the first papal mission to the country.

Speaking to officials on Thursday, the Pope praised Thailand's "small but vibrant Catholic community", with fewer than 400,000 followers in the country today.

Later Friday the Pope will lead his second mass of the trip in a service aimed at Thai youth.

The pontiff may be eager to drum up interest in the faith among young people in Thailand, where religion is increasingly marginalised in a rapidly modernising society.

"The Pope always gives importance to youth which he believes is the foundation of society, country and religion," said Puttipong Puttansri, a Thai historian of the Catholic Church.

Francis touched down in Bangkok on Wednesday and was met by adoring worshippers eager to catch a glimpse of the 82-year-old Argentine.

His mass on Thursday night -- replete with hymns, prayers and traditional Thai performances -- drew an estimated 60,000 people, some crying as the pontiff passed in his Popemobile.

He heads to Japan on Saturday for the second and final leg of his Asia tour, which will include visits to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, both devastated by atomic bombs by the US during World War II.

The pope, who years ago had hoped to be a missionary in Japan, has called for a ban on nuclear weapons.