Pope Francis Sought Acceptance in Buddhist Thailand
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Pope Francis' visit to Buddhist-majority Thailand
focused attention on Catholic hill tribes and sexual abuse against
women amid improving relations between the two religions quietly
influenced by the army's failure to defeat southern Muslim
During Francis' November 20-23
visit, he also emphasized the need for
Catholics to strengthen links with Buddhists.
"General public opinion
holds that Thai Catholics are relatively
'quiet and peaceful'," said Katewadee Kulabkaew, a scholar of Thai
Buddhism's contemporary politics.
inclined to Buddhist chauvinism argue that
may still be a threat to Thai Buddhism," she wrote in an analysis of
Francis' visit published on November 21 by New Mandala, a website
hosted by the Australian National University.
"Nevertheless, the focus
of those determined to 'protect' Buddhism is
now centered on Islam. The escalation of violence in Thailand's Deep
South, where Muslim secessionists have previously killed Buddhist
monks and burned down monasteries, sounds much more alarming to the
Buddhist chauvinists than what they consider as insincere peace
dialogue from the Catholics," Ms. Katewadee said.
More than 7,000 people on
all sides have died since 2004 in the south
where minority ethnic Malay Muslims are fighting for autonomy or
independence. Most of the dead are Buddhists or Muslims.
In contrast to the south, "in northern Thailand,
there is no religious
conflict between Buddhists, Muslims and Christians," said American
Jesuit Father Thomas Michel who ministers and teaches in Chiang Rai in
In Thailand, "most of the Catholics are of Chinese
descent, or come from one of the 'hill tribes,' such as the Karen or
Akha," said Father Michel according to a Catholic News Service report
on November 17 from Vatican City.
"In our Chiang Rai diocese, for
example, most of the villages are
Akha, and many of them are 100 percent Catholic."
The Pope's visit celebrated the
350th anniversary of establishing the
Apostolic Vicariate of Siam Mission, the country's first Catholic
jurisdiction. After Thailand, he flew to Japan on November 23.
The previous trip to Thailand by a Pope was John Paul II’s visit in 1984.
Today about 390,000
Catholics, less than one percent of the
population, live in this Southeast Asian country.
The church's evangelizing
and outreach programs include schools,
hospitals, homes for the elderly and orphanages, and trying to end
But the Pope spent November 22, his
last full day in Thailand,
pleading for Thais to be more welcoming to Christianity and perhaps be
inspired to convert.
During a visit to St. Peter's Church on November
22, a worried Francis
said many Thais regard Christianity as "a foreign faith, a religion
Devotees should "let us give faith a Thai face and flesh," he said.
"It is about stripping the
Gospel of its fine, but foreign garb,
letting it sing with the native music of this land and inspiring the
hearts of our brothers and sisters with the same beauty that set our
own hearts on fire."
touched on the fear some Catholics may have in
and elsewhere, amid positive relations between the Vatican and
"It is vital that the Church
today is able to proclaim the Gospel to
all, in all places, on all occasions, without hesitation and without
On November 22, Francis met leaders from
various faiths at
pointedly, he later chose a shrine on the outskirts of
dedicated to Blessed Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung as the site to meet
bishops from Thailand and elsewhere in Asia.
Nicolas was a Thai priest who died in 1944 and is
"martyr" by the Vatican, venerated and beatified in 2000 by Pope John
symbolizes the worst hostilities suffered by Catholics
Thailand, but is now also a vivid icon displaying how far away from
those dark days the current relationship has evolved.
In the mid-20th century when war erupted
between Paris and Bangkok,
Thais arrested Nicolas in 1941 and accused him of spying for the
10 years imprisonment, he died behind bars
contracting tuberculosis and baptizing at least 68 inmates.
"During the early 1940s, the Thai nationalist
government sought to
unite the local population though Buddhism while persecuting
Christians in a bid to force them to give up their faith," the Office
of the Archdiocese of Bangkok's UCA News reported.
of seven innocent Catholics by police in late 1940 is
of the most tragic episodes of the Thai Church's history," it said.
All seven "martyrs" were beatified by John Paul II in 1989.
On November 22, Francis conducted a
second Mass at the 109-year-old,
Renaissance-style Assumption Cathedral along Bangkok's Chao Phraya
River which has a crypt sheltering the remains of bishops plus a wax
figure of Nicolas.
Catholics should use Jesus to
strengthen relations with Buddhists and
others, Francis said during Mass at Assumption Cathedral.
cultivated with Jesus is the oil needed to light up
path in life, and the path of all those around you -- your friends and
neighbors, your companions at school and work, including those who
think completely unlike yourselves."
Earlier, on November 21, Francis spotlighted
Catholics' improved links
with Buddhists by meeting Thailand's Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism,
the country’s highest-ranking Buddhist monk, in the ornate Wat
Unlike Catholicism, Buddhism does not believe in a creator god.
"The majority of Thais
have drunk deeply from the sources of Buddhism,
which have imbued their way of venerating life and their ancestors,
and leading a sober lifestyle based on contemplation, detachment, hard
work and discipline," Francis said.
Aside from Catholic-Buddhist relations, other issues attracted Francis' concern.
international effort was needed to defend women and
"who are violated and exposed to every form of exploitation,
enslavement, violence and abuse."
made the remarks in a speech on November 21 while
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at his Government House office.
Mr. Prayuth responded: "We have
sought to strengthen the family
institution and ensure equal opportunities for all groups in society,
especially women and children."
Francis later visited St. Louis
Hospital established in 1898 by
At Amphorn Royal Palace, he had a private
audience with King Maha
Vajiralongkorn who wore a white uniform while accompanied by Queen
Francis' visit, he was accompanied by his second
Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, 77, who translated.
Argentine-born nun, clad in a white habit, helps administer
Catholic girls' school in northern Thailand.
gave his first public Mass at a Bangkok sports stadium on
evening of November 21.
A packed audience cheered
when they saw him arrive, standing in a
white vehicle which drove onto the sports track.
Many attendees wore
colorful tribal clothing, reflecting their origins
in the northern hills.
At the end of the Mass, many of the 60,000
attendees turned on their
smartphones' flashlight and rhythmically waved the phones' white light
back and forth during a live choral.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a
Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia
University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three
non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!'
Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60
Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News
Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies
and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King
Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in
Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor
Mask & President Akimbo" portrays a 22-year-old American female mental
patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco
His online sites are: