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Thousands welcome Pope Francis to the Philippines

Carmela Fonbuena
(UPDATED WITH VIDEO) The charismatic pontiff begins his packed 5-day visit to the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation battered by disasters and beset with poverty and corruption
‘OVERWHELMING WELCOME.’ Pope Francis tries to catch his cap on his arrival at the Villamor Airbase. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP
PASAY CITY, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – Pope Francis arrived to a rapturous welcome in Manila late afternoon Thursday, January 15.

The Sri Lankan Airlines A340 plane that brought him from Colombo, Sri Lanka, the first leg of his Asian tour, landed at the Villamor Airbase at 5:32 pm local time, as bells simultaneously pealed in churches across the archipelago.

The 78-year-old Jesuit pope smiled and waved to the excited crowd as he exited the plane a few minutes later. Children danced on the runway, their red, white, and blue umbrellas forming the Philippine flag.

Mabuhay, Papa Francis (Long live, Pope Francis)!” said hundreds of Filipino children who greeted him, part of the 3,000 people in the fiesta-like arrival honors for the Pope.

He spent about 30 minutes at the airbase, greeting dignitaries and well-wishers led by President Benigno Aquino III, before riding the popemobile with Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle.

Thousands of Filipinos cheered and took photos of the pontiff as he traversed the 22-kilometer stretch between the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City and the Papal Nunciature in Manila, the residence of the Vatican Ambassador to Manila, where Francis will be staying.

Pope Francis hugs Mark Angelo Balbero, 10, who welcomed him at the arrival ceremony at the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City, January 15, 2015. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III looks on. Rappler photo

It’s the first time in 20 years that the head of the Roman Catholic Church is visiting this Southeast Asian country of 100 million people, majority of them Catholics and poor. (READ: Pope’s PH trip both state and pastoral visit

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Francis boarded the popemobile that brought him to the Nunciature. Travel between Villamor Airbase and the Nunciature took 37 minutes, much faster than the expected 3 to 4 hours. 

Cops and barricades line the route to help manage the crowd. (Video below)

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Pilgrims began crowding Quirino Avenue near the Papal Nunciature early morning Thursday, expecting to be blessed and “starstruck.”

Okay lang na maghintay kami kahit kanina pa kaming umaga rito. Minsan lang naman may dadating na Santo Papa dito sa Pilipinas,” said Lucita Tandoc, 68, from the Santisima Trinidad Parish. (It’s okay for us to wait, even if we’ve been here since this morning. It’s rare that a pope visits the Philippines)

Quirino Avenue is the area which the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority designated for the pilgrims of different parishes nationwide. Like Tandoc, most of them said they are willing to stand by the roads to get a glimpse of the popular pope.

Anticipating his message

Students holding umbrellas rehearse a dance number hours prior to the arrival of Pope Francis at the Villamor Air base in Pasay City on January 15. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

Francis’ packed 5-day visit to the Philippines involves diplomatic meetings with government officials, masses with local Catholic leaders, engagement with the youth and families, and meetings with typhoon and earthquake victims in the Visayas. 

The message of Pope Francis in these events is most anticipated. He is known to make strong statements during his foreign visits even if it means embarrassing his hosts or his fellow priests.

He used his popularity to shine the light on the issues of immigrants in Europe, the comfort women in South Korea, and the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank. He has spoken about hunger, labor, and homosexuality. “If a person is gay, seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?,” the Pope told reporters in 2013. (READ: Pope of the fringes)

In Leyte, the Pope is expected to tackle climate change ahead of an encyclical he will issue on the environment.

Focus of visit

Francis visits the Philippines as President Aquino is on the last phase of his term – barely two years. After a landslide win in 2010, Aquino vowed to stop corruption and address poverty, two of the country’s most pressing problems.

A huge corruption scandal last year, however, involved his vice president, Jejomar Binay, who’s running for president in 2016. Aquino is perceived to be supporting another official for the presidency, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II.

The biggest known corruption case in recent history was also exposed in 2013, involving both Aquino’s allies and political enemies in the legislature misusing billions of pesos in development funds.

Aquino’s promise to help the poor has yet to be fulfilled in the country’s poorest areas. The People’s Pope will see them face to face on the streets of Metro Manila and Leyte.

PHILIPPINE GREETING. Pope Francis waves next to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III during his arrival at the airport in Manila, Philippines, 15 January 2015. Photo by Dennis M. Sabangan/EPA

Church’s problems

The Church, on the other hand, is also beset with its own controversies, ranging from priests who mismanage church finances and abuse women. (READ: How rich is the Catholic Church?)

A few years ago, the Catholic Church clashed with the government over the passage of a law that allows state funding for contraceptives, which the Catholic Church had declared as “evil.” A law allowing divorce is pending before Congress.

But the core of the Pope’s visit is his trip to Leyte, where he will meet the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), the strongest typhoon to hit land and killed over 6,000 people, based on government reports. There are those who believe it killed more.

The Pope will also meet the victims of Bohol earthquake. Both disasters struck in 2013.

20-year wait

The last pope to visit the Philippines was Pope John Paul II, in 1995. He visited the country twice. The terrorist plot to kill John Paul II using liquid bombs was foiled a few days before his arrival.

Francis’ visit is a security challenge to the Philippines. Its islands in the south still harbor terrorists.

Security officials are also concerned about possible accidents when “near-fanatical” Filipino Catholics mass up to see Pope Francis. They recall the yearly security nightmare that is the Feast of the Black Nazarene.   

It’s a big police and military operation. Up to 40,000 troops are deployed for the entire duration of the Pope’s visit. Airports and some seaports are closed. There’s no work and classes in Metro Manila and in Leyte.

SMOOTH RIDE. Pope Francis waves to the crowd as his popemobile brings him to the Apostolic Nunciature. Photo by Francis Malasig/EPA

with reports from Jodesz Gavilan/Rappler.com