MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Asia has a special spot in the heart of Pope Francis, who looks forward to visiting the region to encourage Christians, especially those suffering or being persecuted, Manila's archbishop said Monday.
Roman Catholics have long been a minority in Asia, with the Philippines the most notable exception. But the Vatican sees Asia as a place for strong growth for the Catholic church. Pope Francis will travel to South Korea next month to beatify 124 Korean martyrs. In January, he is scheduled to visit the Philippines — and likely meet with victims of Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the central provinces — and Sri Lanka.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle told reporters that as a young Jesuit, Pope Francis had an unfulfilled wish to be a missionary in Japan. Shortly after being elected as pope, he told Tagle that he wanted to visit and encourage Christians in Asia, which he believes is important for evangelization.
The Manila archbishop quoted Francis as telling him that he has taken note of the suffering of many Christians in Asia, and that if he can meet face-to-face with persecuted Christians, "I want to kiss their hands and kiss their feet in homage."
"He wants to confirm ... his brothers and sisters in faith," Tagle said. "And this will definitely be a worldwide statement, especially where Christians are in the minority and are suffering persecution. "
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines officially announced Pope Francis' visit to the county, but said the Vatican will announce the dates by the end of July or August, and the detailed schedule in November.
Tagle said central to the pope's visit is "to show solidarity and compassion" to victims of Typhoon Haiyan that devastated central provinces in November, leaving at least 6,300 dead and 1,060 missing.
Vatican officials organizing the pope's trip last week visited Manila and Tacloban, a central city among the hardest hit by the typhoon.
Tagle said the pope has requested that the visit be pastoral and simple and that he meet people who suffered.
Church leaders asked Filipinos to prepare spiritually for the visit by acting with mercy, including feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and giving alms to the poor.
"Our compassionate shepherd comes to show his deep concern for our people who have gone through devastating calamities," a pastoral letter issued by the bishops' conference said. "Let us be like Pope Francis in his humility and compassion. Let us make his apostolic journey of mercy be ours even before he arrives."
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