“Visit from a longtime friend”

Meetings with government officials, a visit to a Buddhist temple and a meeting with the sick and disabled – Pope Francis used the first stops on his Asia trip to promote dialogue and charity in Thailand.

At the start of his Asia trip, Pope Francis thanked Thailand for its reception of refugees and at the same time called for international help. The country has faced a crisis due to the influx of people from neighboring countries, he told politicians and diplomats in Bangkok on Thursday morning. The international community must "act with responsibility and foresight" and solve the causes of this "tragic exodus," the church leader said.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, there are more than 93 refugees in Thailand.000 refugees in nine camps along the border with Myanmar. Most are members of the Karen and Kayah ethnic groups who have fled decades of conflict in Myanmar. According to UNHCR, 51 percent of refugees are Christians.

"Return to the normal democratic process"

The pope had arrived in Thailand on Wednesday for his three-day visit. In his first address Thursday at the Government Palace in Bangkok, he praised the March election as a "return to the normal democratic process".

The pro-military Phalang Pracharat party won Thailand's first House of Representatives election since the 2014 military coup. Since then, former coup general Prayut Chan-o-cha has headed a coalition government.

Against sexual abuse of women and children

During his meeting with the prime minister, Francis also denounced the sexual abuse of children and women. "I also think of all those women and children of our time who are particularly violated and raped, and subjected to every form of exploitation, slavery, violence and abuse," the head of the Catholic Church said.

In doing so, Francis praised "efforts" by the government to "eradicate this plague" and "eradicate this evil and offer a way to give them back their dignity". Sex tourism and child prostitution are rampant in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Men also travel from Germany to have sex with locals, often including minors. Prostitution is actually forbidden in Thailand.

Francis further urged respect for ethnic and cultural differences within society. As a "multicultural, diverse nation," Thailand knows the importance of building harmony and peaceful coexistence among its many ethnic groups, the pope said. He did not address the years-long conflict over the separation of the Islamic-influenced south of the country.

Praise for the pope's commitment

The pope affirmed the loyalty of the Catholic minority, which according to Vatican figures comprises less than one percent of the population. The Catholic community does everything in its power to promote the "typical characteristics of Thai people," love of peace, friendliness and courage. In addition, there is the commitment to all who want to be freed from the "yoke of poverty, violence and injustice," said the head of the church.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-chan, for his part, praised the pope's commitment to social justice, environmental protection and humanity. He then listed what his government is doing in this regard. "So that we leave no one behind," the general quoted a popular phrase of the pope.

"Culture of encounter"

At the later reception by the head of the Buddhist monks Ariyavongsagatanana IX.the Pope called for rapprochement between Thai Buddhists and Catholics. He wanted "not only respect but also friendship" to grow between the communities, Francis said. A "culture of encounter" is possible and gives the world hope in the face of increasing conflict, says Pope. The meeting with the 92-year-old monk patriarch took place at the Wat Ratchabophit temple in central Bangkok.

Francis expressed his personal desire and that of the Catholic Church for "open and respectful dialogue" with Thai Buddhists. Both traditions have "largely in common" contemplation, mercy and moral discernment, he said. This and academic exchanges could help religions grow in "good neighborliness," pope says.

Further, he spoke in favor of charitable and ecological initiatives. "Religions, insofar as they are promoters and guarantors of fraternity," could "prove more and more to be beacons of hope," says church leader. At the same time, Francis expressed gratitude for the religious freedom Catholics have enjoyed in the nearly 400 years of their presence in Thailand.

"Reaffirm bonds of friendship"

For his part, the patriarch recalled the visit of John Paul II. 1984 in Thailand. Also, he said, Thailand's kings have previously welcomed Popes Leo XIII. (1897), Pius XI. (1934) and John XXIII. (1960) visits. In this respect, the current visit of the Pope is "not that of a new friend, but of a long-standing friend of the Thai people". Already Buddha had said, "who wishes no harm to a friend, is revered everywhere".

In a video message distributed before the trip, Francis had said he wanted to "reaffirm the bonds of friendship that unite us with our many Buddhist brothers and sisters". These, he said, give "eloquent testimony to the values of tolerance and harmony". Experts in religious studies judge religious dialogue in Thailand to be difficult. About 95 percent of the population in the Southeast Asian country belongs to Buddhism. The Vatican puts the percentage of Catholics at 0.6 percent.

Accompanying the sick "in suffering

Pope Francis also visited a Catholic hospital in Thailand and thanked those working there for their efforts. In doing so, he called charitable involvement an expression of "missionary discipleship". Christians must also examine the fidelity of their followers and their institutions in concrete charity, he told doctors and nurses at St. Francis Hospital on Thursday.-Louis Hospital in Bangkok.

The hospital was founded in 1898 in what was then Siam and was initially run by the French religious community of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, who are still active there today. The patients are mainly non-Catholics. As part of his visit, Francis also spoke to the sick and disabled; he wanted to "accompany them at least a little bit in their suffering," he said.

Hospital as a symbol of "the healing love of Jesus

The pope urged accepting life "as it arrives in the hospital emergency room" and treating it with a "special reverence". Institutions like this hospital are emblematic of a church that goes out and brings "the healing love of Christ" to those who suffer, he said. Accordingly, the director of the hospital, Tanin Intragumtorchai, emphasized at the beginning that the hospital was not a hospital that wanted to make a profit, and that it had "never placed itself in economic competition with others.

Nearly a thousand people had welcomed the pope in front of the hospital. About 400 of them came from the neighboring country of Vietnam, according to a local presenter. According to the organizers, a total of about 4.500 Vietnamese travelled to Bangkok for the Pope's visit.

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