“There are two Asian trips planned: one to South Korea and then next January, a two-day trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, to the area affected by the tsunami,” Pope Francis said during an in-flight press conference May 26, according to the Italian newspaper La Stampa.
Pope Paul VI visited the Philippines in 1970. St. John Paul II visited the Philippines in 1981 and again in 1995 during a trip that included Sri Lanka, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.
In February, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo had invited Pope Francis to visit the country.
“I welcome this invitation, and I think the Lord will grant us the grace,” the Pope told Sri Lankan pilgrims at the Vatican Feb. 8.
Pope Francis also acknowledged that “many tears have been shed” by the victims of the country’s decades-old civil conflict. He urged the healing of wounds and cooperation between the country’s factions to work for peace, acknowledging that this is “not easy.”
There are about 1.2 million Catholics in Sri Lanka out of a population of over 20 million. Sri Lankans are predominantly Buddhist, though there are sizeable Hindu and Muslim minorities.
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, with about 70.4 million Catholics in a population of 88.9 million people. The country has a significant Muslim minority.
In November 2013, the Philippines was struck by the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded. The storm killed over 6,300 people.
In March 2014, the Vatican confirmed Pope Francis would visit South Korea this August. The visit coincides with the sixth Asian Youth Day, hosted by the Diocese of Daejon.
On the papal flight, the Pope also spoke about the problem of religious persecution, warning: “I think there are more martyrs now that the early Church had seen.”
“The problem of the lack of freedom in the practice of religion is not only limited to some Asian countries but extends to others too,” he said. “Religious freedom is something not all countries have.”
“Some (countries) control to some extent, others take measures that end up being full on persecution. There are martyrs today, Christian, catholic and non-Catholic martyrs. In some place you are forbidden from wearing a cross, possessing a bible or teaching children catechism.”
He gave the example of believers gathering in secret to celebrate the Eucharist while pretending that “they are having tea” because praying together is forbidden.
“We need to approach certain places carefully, to go and help them, pray a lot for these Churches that are suffering, suffering a great deal,” the Pope said, adding that “bishops and the Holy See are working with discretion in order to help Christians in these countries, but it’s not easy task.”
On his return flight from the Holy Land, Pope Francis announced that he will visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January 2015.
Pope Francis, Sri Lanka, Philippines