Pope Francis heads to South Korea with message of peace
Pope Francis travels to South Korea this week with a message of peace for the divided peninsula on his first papal visit to Asia, where the Catholic Church is undergoing dramatic growth.
The 77-year-old will fly into Seoul on Wednesday in a trip also aimed at making up for his predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who never visited Asia during his eight-year papacy.
Vatican watchers say the pope will address the whole continent on the seven-day trip where the number of Catholics, although only 3.2 per cent of the population, is rocketing.
With the Catholic Church dogged by increasing secularism in the West, "it's a chance for the pontiff to flash a thumbs-up to a region upon which Catholicism is increasingly reliant", said Vatican expert John Allen, who writes for the Boston Globe.
In January, the pope will visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines - the region's largest Catholic country - to nurture the burgeoning number of faithful and would-be clerics from China to India, Myanmar and Vietnam.
In South Korea he will preside over a beatification ceremony for 124 Korean martyrs and is expected to use his speech to warn of a recent escalation in anti-Christian persecution in some countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia.
In the last census to include religious affiliation in 2005, close to 30 per cent of South Koreans identified themselves as Christian. The majority are Protestants, but Catholics are the fastest growing group with around 5.3 million adherents - just over 10 per cent of the population.
In North Korea, the church is allowed to operate only within the confines of the state-controlled Korean Catholics Association. The country is often ranked worst for oppression of Christians by international watchdogs.
The pope will hold a mass in Seoul's cathedral for reconciliation between the two Koreas which remain technically at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty.
Seoul's Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, who crossed into North Korea for a historic one-day visit in May, hoped the pope would bring about "a great miracle" for dialogue between the two Koreas. The Vatican ruled out reports that the pope may pray at the demilitarised zone.
Religious watchers have also speculated that the pope might take the chance to travel on to Beijing in a bid to ease a feud between the church and the Chinese government, which has its own state-controlled Catholic church.