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.
The beatification ceremony for Paul Yun Ji-Chung and 123 other Catholic martyrs will be held Saturday at Gwanghwamun Gate. Some 10,000 Korean Catholics were killed during the 1700s and 1800s by Korean rulers who followed hierarchical Confucianism and required ancestor worship. Another 103 of those martyrs were canonized during John Paul's 1984 visit.
Later Saturday, the pope will travel to Kkottongnae to visit a school and a service program for the disabled; on Sunday, he will fly to the Haemi Castle to hold the closing Mass at Asian Youth Day, a massive Catholic festival expected to draw people from 23 Asian countries.
"The pope wants to refresh the evangelization of Asia, which was a major theme that John Paul II had very much in his heart," said the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, head of the Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency AsiaNews. "Going to meet the young people of Asia means to go find the future of Asia."
Before departing Monday, Francis will meet with religious leaders and hold Mass at the Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul.
During his talks, Francis is expected to offer consolation to Koreans over April's ferry sinking, which took the lives of more than 300 people, most of them students. He also is expected to pray at a garden for aborted babies and greet a group of Korean women who were used as sex slaves by Japan's military during World War II.
Observers writing in American media note that Francis' visit to South Korea fulfills a wish of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was unable to visit Asia before resigning last year in poor health.
Francis intends to return to Asia and visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January and possibly Japan at a later date. Catholicism is a minority religion in every Asian nation except the Philippines, but it is growing, church leaders said.
"On this continent the church may be small, but it grows 4 to 5 percent a year," Father Cervellera said. "There are abundant vocations [for] people who are decided in their faith, so it could be, in some way, a model for all the other churches."
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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