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Pope to visit Philippines disaster victims

Pope Francis is to visit the Philippines, Asia's bastion of the Catholic faith, in January 2015 to comfort victims of disasters including Super Typhoon Haiyan, local church leaders said Monday.

MANILA: Pope Francis is to visit the Philippines, Asia's bastion of the Catholic faith, in January 2015 to comfort victims of disasters including Super Typhoon Haiyan, local church leaders said Monday.

Specific details of the trip were not released, but Manila's Archbishop Luis Tagle said the pope viewed Asia as crucial in spreading the faith.

Tagle said the pontiff had told him during a recent meeting at the Vatican that "Asia is important for evangelisation".

"The Christian population of Asia may be numerically small but it is significant," he quoted the pope as saying.

The planned visit comes as the Philippines struggles to recover from a series of disasters in 2013 that claimed thousands of lives.

In November, Super Typhoon Haiyan -- the most powerful storm to make landfall in history -- left about 8,000 dead and millions homeless, devastating communities across the central Philippines.

A month earlier, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake destroyed many historic churches and killed more than 200 people, also in the central region.

"Our compassionate shepherd comes to show his deep concern for our people who have gone through devastating calamities," said Socrates Villegas, head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines.

"Pope Francis comes to revive our drooping spirit and to lead us to greener pastures," he told reporters.

The visit would be the fourth by a pope to the Philippines, where more than 80 percent of the 100 million-strong population are Catholics.

Tagle said a delegation from the Vatican had visited Manila and Tacloban to check on logistics for the papal visit. Further details will be released in August.

The bishops said there were security, infrastructure and logistical concerns to be addressed, while the health of the 77-year-old pope is also an issue.

Pope Francis was forced to pull out of a visit in Rome late last month, with his spokesman citing "the intense pace" of the pontiff's schedule by way of an explanation.

Francis, who became leader of the world's Catholics after the unprecedented retirement of his predecessor Benedict XVI last year, will make his first visit to Asia as pope when he travels to South Korea next month.

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