With an optimistic message taken from the Prophet Isaiah, Pope Francis arrives Thursday in South Korea with plans to uplift youth, talk about peace and honor Catholic martyrs who were killed centuries ago for daring to say that God loves mankind regardless of social class.
“Arise, shine!” Francis said in a recent video message to Koreans, citing Isaiah 60:1. Noting that his five-day trip will include Mass at the sixth Asian Youth Day, the pope promised to “bring the Lord’s call, particularly to the youth.”
The historic papal visit to the divided Korean Peninsula — the first since 1989 — has several objectives, according to Vatican leaders and outside observers.
Although North Korean leaders have declined to participate in the five-day visit, Francis intends to speak about peace and reconciliation in Korea — and activists hope he will use at least one of his 11 planned speaking opportunities to address the unparalleled human rights abuses in North Korea.
“As he beatifies many of Korea’s martyrs from past decades and brings a message of peace to a divided peninsula still at war, we hope he will also use the influence and good will which he has to call for prayer for an end to the desperate and dire suffering of the people of North Korea,” especially those suffering for their religion, said Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide USA.
Francis “is in a unique position to speak for the voiceless people of the world’s most closed nation and to pray for peace, freedom and justice,” Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a British politician and human rights advocate, told National Catholic Register this week.
Others hope the 77-year-old pontiff will continue to denounce religious persecution in northern Iraq and elsewhere in the world.
Before his departure, the Vatican released a letter Francis had sent to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterating his plea for the international community “to take action to end the humanitarian tragedy now underway” in Iraq, where Christians and other religious minorities are being persecuted by the Islamic State.
His comments have been taken to signal at least nonopposition to military action against the Islamic State, while some other Vatican officials have been far more explicit in saying force may have to be used in this case.
Francis began his journey Wednesday by first visiting the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome to pray and leave flowers, as he has done for all of his international trips, before flying on to Seoul.
As is customary, the pope is expected to send greetings to the heads of state of the countries he flies over.
Since his plane is expected to pass through Chinese airspace, it should permit Francis to communicate with Chinese leaders such as President Xi Jinping — a noteworthy event since Beijing and the Holy See have not had diplomatic relations since China’s atheistic Communist Party took over in 1951.
For the last papal visit to South Korea, Pope St. John Paul II was not allowed to fly through Chinese airspace. He flew instead over the Soviet Union and sent radio greetings to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
On Thursday, Francis will be welcomed by South Korean leaders in Seoul and will meet President Park Geun-Hye. He will meet with the bishops of South Korea, who lead a flock of 5.3 million Catholics in the nation of 50 million.
On Friday, the pontiff will fly south to Daejeon to hold mass at the World Cup Stadium and meet with young people at the Daejeon seminary, then helicopter to the Shrine of Solmoe, the birthplace of the first Korean Catholic priest, before returning to Seoul.