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Jubilant Philippines Greets Pope Francis

  • VOA News

Pope Francis arrived to a roaring welcome in the Philippines for a five-day visit keenly awaited by the nation's 80 million Roman Catholics.

Church bells rang across the nation as the pontiff flew into the capital, Manila, after a visit to Sri Lanka.

A large crowd of schoolchildren danced for the pope as he exited his plane to a greeting from Philippine President Benigno Aquino. Thousands of people lined the streets of Manila cheering for him as he and his convoy drove by.

In the first papal visit to the Philippines in 20 years. Francis said he will focus on the poor, the exploited and victims of injustice during his trip to the country. Pope John Paul II visited the country in 1995.

The highlight will be a huge open-air Mass on Sunday in the capital, Manila, where some 6 million people are expected to turn out.

Worried about security, Aquino on Wednesday personally inspected motorcade routes and public venues, which were lined with black-and-white concrete barriers topped by thick wire mesh to control eager crowds.

Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas said Aquino was willing to serve as Francis' “personal bodyguard” to ensure his safety. In a televised address on Monday, Aquino appealed to Filipinos to follow security rules after two people were killed in a stampede during a religious procession on Friday.

Asked if he was nervous ahead of the Pope's arrival, Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Senior Superintendent Wilben Mayor said: “For a long time now, yes. This is very challenging for the PNP.”

Police, military security

Nearly 50,000 soldiers and police were deployed in the capital and in the central Philippine province of Leyte, where the pope will visit Tacloban to meet survivors of a devastating typhoon in November 2013.

About 2 million people are expected to attend an open-air mass on Saturday at Tacloban City airport, almost completely destroyed by Haiyan, Reuters reported.

The pontiff’s visit to the Philippines is the first since Pope John Paul II’s in 1995.

Francis left for the Philippines from Sri Lanka, where he called for unity in the conflict-hit nation and canonized its first saint.

On Wednesday, the pope called for harmony and forgiveness during a sermon in Sri Lanka's war-torn north. Tens of thousands from across the country's religious and ethnic divide gathered at the Our Lady of Madhu shrine to hear his message.

Rebels unsuccessfully fought a 25-year civil war for independence in the Tamil-dominated north.

Some material for this report came from Reuters and AP.