Pope expected to meet ferry victim families in South Korea

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis is expected to meet relatives of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster during his visit to South Korea in August, the Vatican said on Wednesday.

"I would be very surprised if he didn't meet them, as it was a national tragedy which touched many," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, though he said he could not confirm when or where during the five-day visit the meeting would take place.

The Sewol ferry sank in April with the loss of some 300 lives - most of them schoolchildren - and the tragedy rocked the entire country.

The pope will arrive in Soeul on August 14 and is scheduled to meet South Korean President Park Geun-Hye at the Blue House before travelling the following day to Daejeon for a mass with thousands of faithful at the Purple Arena football stadium.

The pontiff will then lead a ceremony in Seoul to beatify 124 Korean martyrs who were killed for their beliefs between 1791 and 1888.

The 77-year-old, a champion of the weak and downtrodden, will go on to visit a centre for the handicapped in the village of Kkottongnae - "field of flowers" in Korean - before winding up the trip with a mass for inter-Korean reconciliation and peace in Soeul's cathedral.

The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.

Some five million of South Korea's 50 million people are Catholic, alongside seven million Buddhists, around 15 million Protestants and numerous followers of new religious movements.