BANGKOK (AFP) - Pope Francis met Thailand's supreme Buddhist patriarch on Thursday (Nov 21) in a gilded Bangkok temple on the first full day of his Asia tour aimed at promoting religious harmony.
This is the pontiff's first visit to Buddhist-majority Thailand - where just over 0.5 per cent of the population are Catholics - before he jets off to Japan on Saturday.
He is pushing a message of inter-faith peace on a four-day visit that will see him lead a mass later on Thursday for tens of thousands of faithful from across South-east Asia.
The 82-year-old head of the Catholic Church also delivered impassioned remarks about the plight of vulnerable children and women who he said deserved a "dignified" future.
In a highly symbolic meeting on Thursday, he sat down with Thailand's supreme Buddhist patriarch Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong at Bangkok's Ratchabophit Temple in the city's historic old quarter.
"Catholics have enjoyed freedom in religious practice, despite their being in a minority, and for many years have lived in harmony with their Buddhist brothers and sisters," the Pope said in a speech at the meeting.
The pair sat before a brilliant gold Buddha statue inside the ornate temple, built 150 years ago by the former Thai King - the supreme patriarch barefoot and draped in orange robes as they spoke.
The Pope reciprocated the gesture, removing his shoes for part of the tete-a-tete.
In an earlier speech, the Pope said the meeting was "a sign of the importance and urgency of promoting friendship and inter-religious dialogue".
It was the same temple visited by John Paul II on the last papal trip to Thailand in 1984.
This visit coincides with the 350th anniversary of the founding of the "Mission de Siam", marking the first visit by Catholic missionaries who arrived from Europe in the 17th century.
Though Christianity's first visitors were initially met with scepticism, today Thailand's nearly 400,000 Catholics face little discrimination and the country is largely free of religious conflict.
Message for migrants
The head of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics met Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at a red carpet welcome ceremony at the government guest house, before addressing medical staff at Bangkok's St Louis hospital.
He was accompanied throughout the day by his cousin Sister Ana Rosa, who has lived in Thailand for decades and is helping the pontiff as a translator.
At the hospital, he praised the valuable service "the Church offers to the Thai people, especially to those most in need".
Earlier, he made a plea for the women and children "who are wounded, violated and exposed to every form of exploitation, enslavement, violence and abuse", calling for a "dignified future" for the young.
Trafficking for sexual exploitation is rampant across South-east Asia, and most victims are young girls, according to the United Nations.
He did not miss the opportunity to address the issue of migration, calling for the "safe, orderly, and dignified" movement of people in a region rife with human trafficking.
The risks of illegal journeys abroad were laid bare last month when 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain.
"It was heartbreaking; let us all pray for them," the Pope said in a video message about the tragedy to a Vietnamese youth group.
Later on Thursday the Pope will lead a huge mass for tens of thousands of people, including ethnic Karen Christians from northern Thailand and Vietnamese Catholic refugees living in Bangkok.
He will also meet Thailand's King, before kicking off another full day on Friday that will see him greet Catholic leaders and lead a second mass.
On Saturday, he flies to Japan, where he will visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two cities devastated when the United States dropped atomic bombs at the end of World War II in 1945.
The Pope, who years ago had hoped to be a missionary in Japan, has made strong calls for a ban on nuclear weapons.
Since his election six years ago, Francis has made two trips to Asia, visiting the Philippines and Sri Lanka in 2014, followed by Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017.
In a speech to civil society, officials and diplomats, he said the visit with the patriarch was "a sign of the importance and urgency of promoting friendship and inter-religious dialogue".