ROME – For experts and locals alike, it seems Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Thailand and Japan will not only highlight the Vatican’s strong ties with interreligious communities in each country, but it could also help the pope advance his ecological and peace-making agenda.

Speaking to Crux, Adul Smanyaphirak, a Muslim living in Bangkok, said that for Thai people generally, “the pope’s visit is a great honor.”

Though the visit will be especially meaningful for Christians, the majority of whom are Catholic, “You will be surprised when you see how all Thais pay respect to him. I mean all Thai religions,” Smanyaphirak said, adding that each of Thailand’s religious communities “live together with respect.”

On Friday, the Vatican announced Francis will visit Thailand and Japan Nov. 19-26. In Japan, he’ll stop in Tokyo, which is preparing to host the Summer Olympics in 2020, and then move to the two cities struck by U.S. atomic bombs in 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The latter is often called the “Rome of Japan” due to its strong concentration of Catholics.

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This trip will be Francis’s fourth to Asia, after South Korea in 2014, Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015, and Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017.

Neither country has had a papal visit since St. John Paul II visited nearly 40 years ago, traveling to Japan in 1981 and Thailand in 1984. Both are majority Buddhist nations where Christians are a tiny minority.

Francis’s Nov. 20-23 visit to Thailand, using the theme of “Christ’s disciples…missionary disciples,” will coincide with the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Mission of Sia, established by Pope Clement IX in 1669.

His Nov. 23-26 visit to Japan is centered on the theme “Protect all life,” which, according to a Sept. 13 communique from the Catholic bishops’ conference in Japan, alludes to both human and environmental issues.

According to Father Bernard Cervellera, head of Asia News and an expert in Asian affairs, the pope’s visit will highlight interreligious collaboration in a world fractured by conflict and religious persecution.

“There (are) great interreligious relations in Thailand,” he said, speaking to Crux. To illustrate the point, he noted how the Vatican recently enlisted Buddhist monks from the Wat Pho Temple to translate an ancient sacred Buddhist book belonging to the Vatican museums into modern languages.

In a May 16 audience with a Thai Buddhist delegation, Francis voiced hope that Buddhists and Catholics “will grow increasingly closer, advance in knowledge of one another and in esteem for their respective spiritual traditions, and offer the world a witness to the values of justice, peace, and the defense of human dignity.”

Cervellera said the Vatican’s interreligious relations in both Thailand and Japan have increased in recent years, especially under Francis.

“Perhaps a few years ago it was not quite so pronounced, but now there are many things for which the Vatican is esteemed” in both countries, Cervellera said, voicing belief that Francis “is doing everything to find in religious communities, in interreligious dialogue, a collaboration for the good of the world, both for peace and for ecology.”

“In a world increasingly divided by war happening in pieces, in a world where certain interests go against our common home, he is looking for collaborators, and collaborators also from other religions,” Cervellera said, noting that in Japan specifically, “the peace movement is very strong,” as is the push for environmental protections due to nuclear pollution.

In Hiroshima alone, more than 140,000 people were killed as a result of the atomic bomb, while in Nagasaki the death toll was approximately 74,000.

In January 2018, Francis, who has often advocated nuclear disarmament, had cards printed with a 1945 photo of a young boy in Nagasaki standing rigidly with the body of his deceased younger brother strapped to his back while waiting for his turn at a cremation site.

Inscribed above his signature in Italian were the words: “the fruit of war.”

In a statement on the visit, Mitsuaki Takami, Archibishop of Nagasaki and president of the Japanese bishops’ conference, said, “I am grateful that [Francis] will come to Japan with its small number of Christians compared to other countries,” he said, adding, “We will work hard to make the pope’s visit to Japan a meaningful one.”

The statement was posted to the official website for the pope’s visit, which also includes background on the pope and the places he’ll visit, as well as application forms to attend papal events.

Francis’s visit to Japan will also fulfill a lifelong personal desire, as he wanted to be sent to the country as a missionary while a young Jesuit.

First brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in 1549, Christianity was banned in 1614, and a period of bloody persecution ensued, with many Japanese Christians forced to go underground, leading to the development of the “Kakure Kirishitan,” or “Hidden Christians” community, who continued to keep the faith alive in rural areas of Japan during the 250 year suppression of Christianity.

In 2016 Francis welcomed celebrated film director Martin Scorsese to the Vatican for the presentation of the movie “Silence,” which tells the story of two Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Japan in search of a mentor who has gone missing while spreading the faith.

While in Japan, Francis is expected to carry forward his push for nuclear disarmament and peace, while also advocating for greater environmental protections. He is expected to meet with Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as representatives of the Catholic Church in Japan.

In Thailand, Francis will reunite with his second cousin, Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, 77, who runs a Catholic girls’ school in Thailand. Speaking to AFP news agency, Sivori said she would be with the pope during his visit, which shows the pope’s desire “to bring a message of peace.”

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Archbishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, the pope’s ambassador in Thailand, and Cardinal Francis-Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, President of the bishops’ conference, announced the visit jointly Sept. 13, saying the schedule for the visit would be provided later.

A website has already been established, complete with background on the mission of Siam, a brief biography of Francis, and a countdown to his visit.

In comments to Asia News, Father Marco Ribolini, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) and a parish priest in the Mae Suay mission in Thailand, said there are at least two events already planned: one for Catholics generally on Nov. 21, and a separate event for young people the next day.

Noting how Thailand is currently “going through a delicate phase of political transition” as the nation adjusts to both a new king and a new government, Ribolini  said Thais “find themselves building the future of the country with very different points of reference.”

Francis’s visit, he said, “can put the contribution that we Catholics can give to the nation a little more at the center,” and help solidify Catholic identity compared to other Christian communities.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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