Pope Francis visits South Korea
Pope Francis became the first pontiff in 25 years to visit South Korea today, bringing a message of peace and reconciliation to the war-divided peninsula.
Seoul's never-timid rival, North Korea, made its presence felt by firing three short-range projectiles less than an hour before he arrived and two more a short time later, officials said.
Although North Korea declined an invitation to Seoul for the papal visit, Francis plans to reach out to North Korea during his five-day trip. But Pyongyang has a long history of making sure it is not forgotten during high-profile events in the South.
The apparent test firing was conducted from Wonsan on the North's east coast and the projectiles flew about 135 miles, according to a defence ministry official. It wasn't immediately clear what the projectiles were. After the initial three firings, Pyongyang followed up with two more after Francis had arrived.
North Korea has conducted an unusually large number of short-range missile and artillery test firings this year. Pyongyang has expressed anger over annual military drills between the United States and South Korea, which it says are invasion preparations. A new round of the drills, which Seoul and Washington call routine and defensive, are expected to start in coming days.
During his visit, Francis plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism. But he is also expected to push for peace on the peninsula, in his speeches and especially during a Mass on August 18 in Seoul's main cathedral. While North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government.
At an airport just south of Seoul, the pope shook hands with four relatives of a South Korean ferry sinking that killed more than 300 and two descendants of Korean martyrs who died rather than renounce their faith.
Some elderly Catholics wiped tears from their faces, bowing deeply as they greeted the pope. A boy and girl in traditional Korean dress presented Francis with a bouquet of flowers. The pope then stepped into a small, black, locally made car for the trip into Seoul, where he and president Park Geun-hye were to take part in an official welcome ceremony at the presidential palace and later deliver speeches.
"Because our country has undergone many unfortunate situations, South Korean people are heartbroken. My wish is that the pope's visit can heal those heartbroken people," said Cho Young-rae, a 58-year-old Buddhist.
As his plane flew through Chinese airspace on the way to South Korea, Pope Francis sent a telegram of greetings and prayers to Chinese president Xi Jinping. It was a rare opportunity for an exchange since the Holy See and Beijing have no diplomatic relations, and furthers a low-key push for better relations with China and efforts to heal a rift between the Chinese authorities and those Catholics who worship outside the state-recognised church.
Vatican protocol calls for Francis to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace. Usually they pass unnoticed, but today's telegram was unique because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.
Other highlights of Francis' visit include his participation in a Catholic festival for young believers from around Asia. A ceremony Saturday to beatify Korean martyrs who perished for their faith from 1791 to 1888 could draw about one million people, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
A few women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the Second World War will attend a Mass, although no private audience is expected, the Vatican said. The pope is also expected to meet some families of the South Korean ferry sinking in April. The government's response to the disaster, which killed mostly high school students, has angered many South Koreans.
"A lot of bad things keep happening in our country right now, and people are going through tough times. So I hope this event can encourage people and bring more positive things to our country," said Ryun Sun-hee, a 19-year-old college student.
It's the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II travelled to South Korea in 1989. In January, Francis plans to visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines.