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As Pope Heads to Philippines, Concerns Over Security

Pope Francis waves as he boards a plane for his trip to Sri Lanka and Philippines at Fiumicino airport in Rome, Jan. 12, 2015.
Pope Francis waves as he boards a plane for his trip to Sri Lanka and Philippines at Fiumicino airport in Rome, Jan. 12, 2015.

Pope Francis is in Asia this week for the second time in less than six months. He is scheduled to canonize a saint in civil war scarred Sri Lanka and then go to the Philippines to meet with victims of two major disasters that happened in late 2013. Both visits are expected to draw huge crowds and in the Philippines the nation’s president is calling for calm.

Officials expect massive crowds to converge everywhere the pontiff goes in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.

Vatican officials have said Pope Francis insisted on an open vehicle so that he could touch the masses and hear their voices. Organizers are particularly concerned about the scheduled Mass this coming Sunday at a Manila park that is expected to draw six million people.

Pope Francis Travels to Sri Lanka and the Philippines
Pope Francis Travels to Sri Lanka and the Philippines

President Benigno Aquino in a national address Monday reminded the public to keep calm and not get carried away by the excitement of being near the pope, potentially putting him in physical danger.

“We need your support and cooperation. It is clear this visit of Pope Francis is a huge undertaking for the country. His safety and the public’s safety are all depending on us… I’m asking you: do we want the Philippines’ history to be marked by a tragedy regarding the pope?” said Aquino.

Aquino told reporters later the country’s security agencies are working with international intelligence groups such as Interpol to monitor any potential outside threats, particularly from the Islamic State militant group. The country’s Interior minister has said about 40,000 security personnel will be on duty during the visit.

Church officials say Francis, a strong advocate of the poor and marginalized, is coming to the Philippines primarily to be with survivors of super Typhoon Haiyan, which left 7,300 dead or missing and displaced millions. He is also expected to meet with survivors of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that killed hundreds and left thousands homeless. The disasters both struck the central Philippines weeks apart in October and November 2013.

College student Celina Castro does disaster relief with the Dominican Network Youth Group Philippines. She will be participating in a program with the pope at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. Castro called his visit a blessing, especially for survivors of calamities in this disaster-prone country.

“Just his mere presence would somehow heal the emotional and psychological distress of the people in the country,” said Castro.

In Tacloban and Palo, two impoverished cities that bore the brunt of the deaths from Haiyan, the pontiff is scheduled to say an outdoor Mass, bless the Pope Francis Center for the Poor and meet with seminarians and other clergy.

In Manila he will meet with poor families, hold a private Mass for clergy and religious, meet with young people and hold an interfaith dialogue with religious leaders.

Some in the Muslim community are hopeful he will mention the recently signed peace accord between the country’s largest Muslim rebel group and the government.

Mussolini Lidasan, head of the Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue at Ateneo de Davao University, said it would be a “big help” if Pope Francis could mention a call to support the peace process in the southern part of the country, where unrest started out as a conflict between Christians and Muslims hundreds of years ago.

“Here we are trying to build a strong Christian-Muslim relationship and the pope’s visit could actually really symbolize our call for peace and unity in the country,” said Lidasan.

The pope is returning to Asia less than half a year after he was in this region, which the Catholic Church sees as a potential growth area. It also has some of the poorest countries in the world.

Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines Secretary General Marvin Mejia said ahead of the papal visit, the local church has been intentionally carrying out its mission by following the pope’s example.

“My hope really is that this church, the church in the Philippines will truly become the church of the poor. That is, one, the leadership, I mean the bishops, the priests, the religious and nuns would have a deeper… sensibility, a deeper concern, a real concern for the poor,” said Mejia.

Pope Francis is in Sri Lanka until January 15. He will visit the Philippines from the January 15 through 19.