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Pope Francis to make historic visit to S Korea on Thursday

Pope Francis' five-day South Korea visit which begins Thursday (Aug 14) will not only be his first trip to Asia since he took over the papacy, it is also the first visit by a pope to any Asian country in almost 20 years.

SEOUL: Pope Francis starts his five-day South Korea trip on Thursday (Aug 14) amid tight security and excitement by Catholic South Koreans who make up about 11 per cent of the population - but the visit is not just significant to that particular community.

Tomorrow's trip is not only Pope Francis' first trip to Asia since he took over the papacy in March last year, it is also the first visit by a pope to any Asian country in almost 20 years.

There are some five million Roman Catholics in South Korea, but that will not be the only community closely watching Pope Francis' visit. The Pope is also expected to meet with North Korean Catholics living in South Korea when he holds a special mass for reconciliation and peace.

Lee Eun-hyung, a priest at a church near the border with North Korea, said: "I believe one of the reasons he chose South Korea as his first visit in Asia is linked to peace on the Korean peninsula and the division of South and North Korea. We anticipate his strong message on peace will give us hope in the future."

But North Korea has rejected an invitation to that special mass, clouding hopes for peace and the Pope's visit. Still, the reconciliation mass is only one of the 25 official events scheduled for the leader of the Catholic church.

Pope Francis will also meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, as well as hold a mass at a stadium in Daejon, where most of the persecution of Korean Catholics took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Pope will also meet with students who survived the Sewol ferry sinking tragedy as well as families of those who died in Daejon. He will also attend the 6th Asian Youth Day, which a gathering of Catholic youths from more than 15 countries.

The Pope will hold a mass in Gwanghwamun Square where more than one million Koreans are expected to gather. Only about 170,000 people will be allowed to attend the mass itself. A ceremony will also be held to put 124 Korean Catholic Church martyrs on track toward sainthood.

With so much attention on the Pope's visit, South Korea will put its police force on a nationwide emergency alert. It seems they will have their task cut out for them, especially since Pope Francis has expressed his wish to use a compact Korean car in his travels instead of a bulletproof vehicle.