DAEJEON, South Korea (AFP) - Pope Francis met relatives of South Korea's ferry disaster on Friday as 45,000 people packed into a sports stadium for a mass on the first papal trip to Asia in 15 years.
It was the pope's first public appearance following his arrival in Seoul on Thursday.
The crowd had crammed the World Cup stadium in Daejeon, some 160 kilometers south of Seoul, hours before the pope arrived to conduct the mass.
Among them were 38 survivors and relatives of victims of April's Sewol ferry tragedy in which 300 people died, most of them schoolchildren.
"I'm a Protestant but I believe the papal visit will help heal the wounds from the Sewol disaster," one of the family members, Kim Hyeong Ki, told AFP.
Before beginning the mass, Pope Francis held a brief private audience with some of the relatives, who handed him letters urging his support for a full, independent inquiry into the Sewol sinking.
Trees lining the streets leading to the stadium were tied with the yellow ribbons that have become the memorial symbol for those who died. Thousands without tickets cheered and waved flags as the pope rode to the venue in an open-topped car, stopping from time to time to give a personal blessing to young children and infants held up by their parents.
"I think this is the most important and unforgettable moment of my life," said Han Hye Jin, 26, an office worker in Daejeon. "I hope the papal visit will help our country overcome sad things like the Sewol disaster and unite together," Han said.
As the pope entered the stadium, the capacity crowd rose, waving white handkerchiefs and shouting "Viva Papa" and "Mansei" ("Long live" in Korean).
The mass was conducted on a raised, canopied stage with giant screens on either side for those high up in the stands, which were decorated with banners in Korean reading "We Will Always Follow you" and "We Love You".
The event coincided with a public holiday to mark the liberation anniversary. The pope's visit has generated enormous public excitement in a country with a thriving Catholic community that punches well above its minority weight in one of Christianity's most muscular Asian strongholds.
In the last national census to include religious affiliation, conducted in 2005, close to 30 per cent of South Koreans identified themselves as Christian, compared to 23 percent who cited the once-dominant Buddhism. The majority are Protestants, but Catholics are the fastest-growing group, with around 5.3 million adherents - just over 10 percent of the population.
"It's just wonderful to be able to see him in person," said Helena Sam, 46, a businesswoman in Daejeon. "I only hope the pope's message of peace and reconciliation will spread to our brothers and Catholic followers in North Korea," she said.
North Korea had been invited to send a group of Catholics to attend a special inter-Korean "reconciliation" mass by Francis in Seoul next week, but declined, citing upcoming South Korea-US military drills.
The North pays lip-service to the freedom of worship but maintains the tightest controls over religious activity and treats unsanctioned acts of devotion as criminal.
The pope's visit is very much aimed at fuelling a new era of growth for the Catholic church in Asia and Francis will get a chance to send a message to the region later Friday when he meets several thousand young Catholics gathered in Daejeon for Asian Youth Day.