Tens of thousands of Thais from different religions are gathering in Bangkok to glimpse Pope Francis, who arrives here Wednesday for a four-day visit to the Buddhist-majority kingdom, the first by a pontiff in 35 years.
On the eve of the pope’s scheduled arrival, 35 students and their teachers from the Attarakeeyah Islamiyah School, a Muslim campus in Thailand’s insurgency-stricken Deep South, traveled to the nation’s capital to join the crowds heading there in anticipation of the papal visit.
The members of the school’s chorus said they were looking forward to joining the concert choir at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in performing songs of peace in front of Francis. The leader of the Catholic Church is scheduled to stop by the campus on Friday afternoon to meet with leaders of Christian denominations and other religions.
“It is the top honor for us to have a chance to perform music of international peace. We believe the songs present the meaning of living together, regardless of diversity, make peace in the world,” Nongma Madama, who directs the chorus from Attarakeeyah, a school in Narathiwat province, told BenarNews.
On his first full day in Thailand, Pope Francis is scheduled to meet separately with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X), and Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong, the country’s supreme Buddhist patriarch, as well as visit patients and staff at the St. Louis Hospital in Bangkok.
On Thursday night, the pontiff will preside over a Holy Mass at the National Stadium, according to an official program released by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand. He will also hold a Mass for young people at the Assumption Cathedral in Bangkok on Friday afternoon, after meetings with Christian leaders and Catholic Bishops during the morning.
“It is a good thing the Pope will visit Thailand because it has been over 30 years now since the latest papal visit. The government is honored to welcome His Holiness,” Narumol Pinyosinwat, a spokeswoman for the Thai government, told BenarNews.
The pope’s arrival in Thailand coincides with the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the first Catholic mission there. The country’s nearly 400,000-strong Catholic community represents less than 1 percent of the Thai population of 69 million people.
Before he embarked on his trip to Thailand, Francis sent a video message to the Thai people.
“[A]s a multi-ethnic and diverse nation with rich spiritual and cultural traditions, Thailand has worked hard to promote harmony and peaceful co-existence, not only among its own people but also throughout the region of Southeast Asia,” the 82-year-old pontiff said.
“In this world that too frequently experiences discord, division and exclusion, this commitment to forge a unity respectful of the dignity of every man, woman and child can serve as an inspiration for the efforts that people of good will around the world are making to promote greater development of our human family in solidarity, in justice and living in peace.”
He said he hoped his visit would strengthen “bonds of friendship” between Catholics and Buddhists, “who bear eloquent witness to the value of tolerance and harmony that are so characteristic of your people.”
The pope will end his visit to Thailand on Saturday, when he will depart for Japan, the next and final leg of his latest Asian trip.
Francis is the first pope to visit Thailand since John Paul II came here in 1984.
Wanwanach Worarakkit, a Thai Buddhist, was a child studying at the St. Joseph’s Convent when the first pope visited her country.
Wanwanach, 44, who was taught to recite Catholic prayers in English, clearly remembers the day when she witnessed John Paul II hold a Mass at a stadium in the capital.
“My Christian friends walked up to His Holiness. I, as a Buddhist, just prayed, but I felt the Mass’s massiveness and the kindness of the Pope,” Wanwanach told BenarNews.
Nontarat Phaicharoen and Matahari Ismail contributed to this report from Bangkok and Narathiwat, Thailand.