World News

Pope Francis to visit Thailand, Japan in November

BANGKOK/TOKYO (Reuters) - Pope Francis will visit Asia in November and will be the first pope in nearly four decades to make a trip to Thailand and Japan, Vatican sources said.

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis waves as he arrives for the weekly general audience at the Vatican, September 11, 2019. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS

The pope will visit Thailand from Nov. 20 to 23 and Japan from Nov. 23 to 26.

Francis’ trip to Japan will take him to Tokyo as well as the two cities hit by U.S. atomic bombs at the end of World War Two - Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Friday.

The visit will be the first papal trip to Japan since 1981.

The stop in Thailand will coincide with the 350th anniversary of the founding of the “Mission de Siam” by Pope Clement IX to oversee missions in Siam, the former name of Thailand. The late Pope John Paul visited Thailand in 1984.

Catholics are a tiny minority in mostly Buddhist Thailand, accounting for less than 2% of the population.

In announcing the Thai trip, Bangkok Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovitvanit said the pope’s full itinerary will be announced later.

The Asian papal trip is part of Francis’ push to increase dialogue with other religions in order to promote world peace.

Currently, about 1% of Japan’s population is said to claim Christian belief or affiliation.

Christianity was first brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in 1549 and banned in 1614, setting in motion a period of bloody persecution that forced the faithful to choose between martyrdom or hiding their beliefs.

This led to the development of “Kakure Kirishitan,” or Hidden Christians, who kept their religion alive in isolated parts of Japan during the 250 years of suppression that followed the ban. Some rites took on elements of Buddhist ancestor worship, Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, and folk practices such as prayers for good crops.

The 2016 Martin Scorsese film “Silence” is set in Nagasaki and deals with two priests who travel from Portugal to feudal Japan to search for a mentor who has gone missing and spread the Catholic faith. It’s based on a novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, who was Christian himself.

Additional reporting by Elaine Lies in Tokyo; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Michael Perry