Aug. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Pope Francis called for greater efforts toward reconciliation between North and South Korea at the start of the first papal trip in 25 years to the divided peninsula that he said has “long suffered because of a lack of peace.”
“Korea’s quest for peace is a cause close to our hearts, for it affects the stability of the entire area and indeed of our whole war-weary world,” Pope Francis said in a speech today after meeting with South Korean President Park Geun Hye in Seoul. “Diplomacy, as the art of the possible, is based on the firm and persevering conviction that peace can be won through quiet listening and dialog, rather than by mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force.”
About an hour before his arrival this morning, North Korea fired three short-range projectiles into the sea off its east coast, according to the South’s Defense Ministry. Kim Jong Un’s regime later fired two more projectiles that flew 220 kilometers (137 miles), according to the ministry.
North Korea declined the South’s invitation to send representatives to the papal visit. Park said today Kim’s regime should drop its nuclear arms program in order for the two sides to begin repairing ties. Tensions have been high since the North shelled a front-line South Korean island in 2010 and carried out a third nuclear test last year.
South Korea earlier this week proposed the sides hold their second round of high-level talks this year to discuss boosting exchanges, including resuming the reunions of families separated by the Korean War. The North hasn’t responded yet.
During his five-day visit, Francis will attend Asia Youth Day in the city of Daejeon and carry out a beatification ceremony for 124 Korean martyrs on Aug. 16. He will also meet refugees from North Korea.
Francis is the first pope to visit South Korea since John Paul II a quarter of a century ago and he shares some of the same popular appeal as the “rock star” pope, whose visit fueled a surge in Catholicism among Koreans.
Banners welcoming Pope Francis dot the streets of Seoul while t-shirts, statuettes and other memorabilia are on sale at stores across the city. Tedora, an Italian jewelry brand, is selling special edition pope charm jewelry enhanced by the “the holiness of the Vatican,” according to its Facebook page.
South Korea, along with neighbor China, is spurring Asia’s rise as one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian populations, helping counter the faith’s slowing growth in Europe and the U.S.
“The Holy Father’s trip to Asia reflects his awareness of something that’s not on the radar for many Westerners: Christianity, both Roman Catholicism and various forms of Protestantism, is booming in Asia,” Father John Wauck, professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said by e-mail. “It is, you could say, a growth industry there.”
The number of South Korean Catholics rose 42 percent to 5.1 million in 2005 from a decade earlier, while that of Protestants dipped 2 percent to 8.6 million in the same period, according to a 2005 government census, the latest with religious figures. Buddhism held the biggest portion with 10.7 million followers, or 23 percent of the country’s 47-million population at the time.
For Francis, dubbed “The People’s Pope” by Time Magazine for his preaching of humility and defense of the poor, South Korea offers particularly fertile ground. Unlike in many other countries in Asia and Latin America, Catholicism is holding its own against the spread of evangelical churches, which have seen their reputation in the country tainted by everything from cases of financial misdeeds to links to the Sewol ferry tragedy.
After the Sewol sinking on April 16 that killed more than 300 people, mostly high school students, authorities said the ferry company was run by Yoo Byung Eun, the leader of a Christian group called Guwon, or redemption.
Police twice raided the group’s 230,000-square-meter compound south of Seoul seeking to arrest Yoo, who taught followers that they needed to dedicate their wealth to him to achieve salvation. Yoo used Guwon to control a network of about 70 companies, South Korea’s financial authorities said. His badly decomposed body was discovered on July 22, with forensic analysts unable to determine the cause of his death.
The Sewol tragedy is on the pope’s agenda as he meets with relatives of the victims during his trip. He met four of them upon arriving and told them that his heart is broken by the tragedy, Song Kyung Ok, one of the relatives, said.
“Catholicism is especially luring young Koreans, attracted by priests being more vocal on social issues and far less authoritarian in their attitudes,” Tark Ji-il, a theology professor at the Busan Presbyterian University, said by phone. “The pope’s visit could also be a crisis for Protestant churches, whose public images have deteriorated over the past decade.”
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