Pope Francis brings anti-nuclear message to Japan's bombed cities

By Elaine Lies and Philip Pullella

By Elaine Lies and Philip Pullella

NAGASAKI, Japan, Nov 24 - (Reuters) - Pope Francis, a passionate anti-nuclear campaigner, brings his message that nuclear weapons should be abolished to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the two Japanese cities devastated by atomic bombings in World War Two and the only places in the world to so suffer.

Francis, who arrived in Japan on Saturday night for a four-day visit, has called in the past for a total ban on nuclear weapons even for deterrence.

During his time in Japan he also will meet with survivors of the March 11, 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, which was touched off by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

Francis, the first pope to visit Japan in 38 years, began his stay by telling bishops in Tokyo of his youthful dreams to be a missionary in Japan and how they were finally being fulfilled.

"Ever since I was young I have felt a fondness and affection for these lands,” he said, adding that it has been 470 years since Saint Francis Xavier, one of the early Jesuits, arrived in Japan to start the spread of Christianity.

In Nagasaki, a green and hilly port city that has long been a centre of Japanese Catholicism, Francis will begin the most emotional day of his trip on Sunday at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park.

He will lay flowers, light a candle, and have a moment of silence in memory of the thousands who lost their lives.

Some 400,000 people lost their lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, either instantly or later from radiation illness or injuries after the United States dropped two bombs as it sought to end World War Two in August 1945.

Nagasaki was the second city destroyed, hit on Aug. 9, 1945 by an atomic bomb named “Fat Man”.

“Everybody in Nagasaki feels the same way – we don’t want any more nuclear weapons,” said a city taxi driver, who declined to give his name.

"Even now, something like two percent of the city’s population is still suffering health problems due to the bomb."

Later on Sunday, Francis will visit a monument to people martyred during the 250 years in which Christianity was banned in Japan, forcing believers to go underground or face death.

"Hidden Christians” blended Christianity with Buddhism and native Shinto beliefs to survive, and Francis may meet with several members of the ageing, dwindling population later on.

An afternoon Mass, preceded by prayers for the victims of the atomic bombs, is the last event in the city before Francis travels to Hiroshima, destroyed by the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.

"I wish to meet those who still bear the wounds of this tragic episode in human history," the pope told the Japanese bishops.

Hotels in Nagasaki were packed, with some people even flying in from the tropical Okinawa island chain to attend the Mass. Locals recalled how Pope John Paul II visited 38 years ago on a February day amid heavy snow.

Jesuits brought Christianity to Japan in 1549, but it was banned in 1614. Missionaries were expelled and the faithful were forced to choose between martyrdom or hiding their religion. The ban was lifted in 1873.

(Writing by Elaine Lies Editing by Frances Kerry)