Pope heading to Philippines, where adoring crowds await


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Pope Francis departed Sri Lanka Thursday for the Philippines, Asia’s most populous Catholic nation, where ecstatic crowds await the first papal visit in 20 years.

The government has declared national holidays during the pope’s visit, which runs through Monday. He will be in the bustling capital of Manila and fly over the weekend to eastern Leyte province, where he plans to meet survivors of Typhoon Haiyan that devastated entire villages in 2013.

For Precy Asistio, a 60-year-old who waited near the Apostolic Nunciature, the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in Manila where Francis will stay, just a wave from the pontiff will make her day.

“We’re waiting for Pope Francis so we can be blessed,” Asistio said. “Once we see him, we’ll go home already, as long as he waves at us.”

At Manila’s Villamor Air Base, Alaiza Barrientos, one of 164 young girls in white dresses who were to welcome Francis with a dance, said she wished her encounter with the pontiff would help realize her prayers for the recovery of her grandmother, who has a tumor in her spinal cord.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, said he hoped the widely-awaited visit by Francis, the first Latin American head of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Christian community, would be festive and spiritually uplifting and nurture compassion at a time when the country is still recovering from recent deadly disasters, including Haiyan.

“It’s like a big, big, big, big national fiesta,” a beaming Tagle told The Associated Press in an interview on the eve of the pope’s arrival. The visit, he said, “comes at that point when people would really be helped by a moral and spiritual boost coming from someone who really cares.”

Francis will also meet President Benigno Aquino III, who has waged a campaign against poverty, an issue close to the pope’s heart, but has clashed with Catholic leaders over a reproductive health bill that promoted use of artificial birth control. Congress, which is dominated by Aquino’s allies, passed the bill in 2012.

Meetings with Filipino families, Catholic church leaders and the youth were also slated.

During his time in Sri Lanka, the pope traveled to the jungles of the war-torn north for a show of solidarity with the victims of the country’s 25-year civil war, urging people to forgive one another “for all the evil which this land has known.”

“It is very important to keep our country peaceful and our religious strength become more and more after this visit,” said Sumith Periera, an engineer who came to see the pope off.

The pope’s trip has given Philippine authorities daunting security challenges, including an outdoor Mass in a historic Manila park on Sunday that officials say could draw a record 6 million people.

About 50,000 policemen and troops have been deployed to secure the pope in a country, where relatively small numbers of al-Qaida-inspired militants remain a threat in the southern Philippines despite more than a decade of U.S.-backed military offensives.