Pope Francis has arrived in Thailand and will later travel on to Japan, visiting countries with small Christian minorities. The head of the Catholic Church's visits to Nagasaki and Hiroshima will be closely watched.
Once again, Pope Francis is traveling to countries where Catholics make up a small percentage of the population. At a time when isolationism is spreading and dialogue has become rare, the pope, who arrived in Thailand on Wednesday, has made it his mission to use such trips to foster understanding between faiths.
The pontiff said he sought "to strengthen the bonds of friendship that we share with many Buddhist brothers and sisters." He added: "They bear eloquent witness to the values of tolerance and harmony."
Perry Schmidt-Leukel, a professor of religious studies and intercultural theology at the University of Münster, told DW that the relationship between Christianity and Buddhism had been "greatly influenced by colonialism." Schmidt-Leukel said one example was Japan's ban on Christianity during Sakoku, the empire's era of strict isolationism from the early 17th century to the middle of the 19th century.
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"Both countries have seen and continue to see societal and political misgivings vis-a-vis Christianity," Schmidt-Leukel said. He added: "The relationship between Buddhism and Christianity continues to suffer under historical strains rooted in the unfortunate intersection of Christian missionary work and Western colonial ambitions. ... Such historical memories are present in the minds of the people."
Schmidt-Leukel said the Catholic Church had not acknowledged the importance of religious freedom or made efforts toward interfaith dialogue until the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 through 1965. He said Francis had gone further than his predecessors by making "astonishing statements" about religious diversity, such as a statement that the pontiff signed with Muslim leaders in Abu Dhabi in February that emphasized the value of religious cooperation.
'The destructive power'
Francis will make pilgrimages to memorials for victims of religious persecution. He will meet with bishops from Thailand and neighboring countries at the Shrine of the Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, a priest who died in 1944 after having been imprisoned for years. He was beatified in 2000.
In Japan, Francis will visit a monument in Nagasaki to martyred Christians.
"The pope could take the opportunity to say that religious persecution, in either direction, can never again take place," Schmidt-Leukel said.
Media outlets will give heavy coverage to the pope's visits to the memorials to the victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima, where he will participate in an interfaith peace conference, and Nagasaki, where he intends to deliver a rebuke of the use of nuclear weapons. In a video message delivered on the eve of his departure, Francis called the use of nuclear weapons "immoral." He and his Japanese partners will pray "that the destructive power of nuclear weapons will never again be unleashed on humanity."
Francis will become the second pope to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. John Paul II visited in 1981, at the height of the Cold War. "Peace is one of the loftiest achievements of culture, and for this reason it deserves all our intellectual and spiritual energy," John Paul II said. "Our future on this planet, exposed as it is to nuclear annihilation, depends upon one single factor: humanity must make a moral about-face," he added. "At the present moment of history, there must be a general mobilization of all men and women of good will. Humanity is being called upοn to take a major step forward, a step forward in civilization and wisdom."
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Now, 38 years later, the world is similarly torn and the threat of nuclear conflict is growing. Francis will certainly address that fact when speaking to the world from these historical sites.