BANGKOK • Pope Francis arrived in Thailand yesterday and was greeted by the cheering faithful on the first leg of an Asian tour that will also take him to Japan and carry a message of inter-religious dialogue and nuclear disarmament.
The pontiff landed just after midday at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport, where he stepped off the plane and was met by his missionary cousin, Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, who has lived in Thailand for decades.
The welcome party included Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and children in traditional ethnic minority dress, one of whom Pope Francis stopped to hug.
This is the Pope’s third trip to Asia – and his 32nd abroad – taking him to two Buddhist-majority countries with minority Roman Catholic populations.
He is the first pontiff in nearly four decades to visit Thailand, where the nearly 400,000-strong Catholic community makes up a little more than 0.5 percent of the population. The last visit from a pontiff was in 1984, by Pope John Paul II.
Before his arrival, Pope Francis had praised the country as a “multi-ethnic nation” and hoped his trip would strengthen the Roman Catholic community’s bonds of friendship with “many Buddhist brothers and sisters”.
“I trust that my visit will help to highlight the importance of inter-religious dialogue, mutual understanding, and fraternal cooperation,” the Pope said in the video marking his visit from Nov 20 to 23.
Pope Francis’ visit has stirred excitement among Thailand’s Catholic community, who were out in force yesterday waiting for his motorcade near the Vatican City embassy. They included a costumed mascot designed to resemble the Pope and children yelling “Sawadee Pa (Hello Father)”.
Today, the Pope will meet the 20th Supreme Patriarch Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong – the head of Thailand’s Buddhist clergy. He will also meet King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.