Pope Francis begins visit to Thailand as faithful jostle for selfies

School children run in the courtyard of Assumption Cathedral, which was decorated with posters of Pope Francis, in Bangkok on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (AP)
Updated 20 November 2019

Pope Francis begins visit to Thailand as faithful jostle for selfies

  • Catholics are a tiny minority in mostly Buddhist Thailand, accounting for less than 2 percent of the population
  • Among those welcoming him was his cousin and childhood friend from Argentina, 77-year-old nun Sister Ana Rosa Sivori

BANGKOK: Pope Francis arrived in Thailand on Wednesday to meet with its small but devoted Catholic minority on a seven-day Asian trip that will include a family reunion in Bangkok and take his anti-nuclear message to Japan.
Waiting for a glimpse of the pontiff, excited Catholics thronged around the Vatican’s Bangkok embassy and St. Louis Hospital to take selfies.
“Once in a lifetime, I want to see him and be able receive prayer from him,” said 60-year-old Orawan Thongjamroon outside the Vatican embassy, where she had been waiting since early morning for the papal motorcade.
Catholics are a tiny minority in mostly Buddhist Thailand, accounting for less than 2 percent of the population.
The pope’s plane touched down outside Bangkok around midday and he descended to a red-carpet airport welcome from church leaders for a visit that coincides with the 350th anniversary of the first papal mission in Siam, the former name of Thailand.
Among those welcoming him was his cousin and childhood friend from Argentina, 77-year-old nun Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, who has worked in Thai schools for more than 50 years and will be the pope’s personal translator in Thailand.
The pair, whose grandfathers were brothers, beamed as they made their way over the tarmac through crowds of clergy, children and government officials to a waiting motorcade.
“Dear friends in Thailand and Japan, before we meet, let us pray together that these days may be rich in grace and joy,” read a message on the pontiff’s official Twitter account before he left the Vatican.
At Bangkok’s St. Louis Church, a Thai Catholic woman proudly showed photographs of her and Pope Francis from a visit she made to the Vatican with her husband.
“I never thought that I would have another chance to see him again,” said Nuchnaree Praresri, 49.
But when she was invited to be a cleaner at St. Louis Church for the papal visit, she seized the opportunity.
“This might not be an important role for others, but I’m very proud,” she said.
Catholicism first arrived in Thailand in the mid-1500s with Portuguese missionaries and traders, and Catholics have over the years built respected schools and hospitals.
Pope Francis begins his official program on Thursday when he is scheduled to meet King Maha Vajiralongkorn as well as the supreme Buddhist patriarch before offering mass at the National Stadium.
He will hold another mass at Bangkok’s Assumption Cathedral before leaving on Saturday for Japan, where he will visit the nuclear ground zeros of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


India’s parliament passes citizenship law, protests flare

Updated 2 min 37 sec ago

India’s parliament passes citizenship law, protests flare

  • Police in Assam’s main city of Guwahati used water cannons and tear gas as they clashed with protesters
  • The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said on Monday that Washington should consider sanctions against Shah, a close associate of Modi

NEW DELHI: India’s ruling Hindu nationalist government on Wednesday won parliamentary approval for a far-reaching citizenship law that critics say undermines the country’s secular constitution, as protests against the legislation intensified.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to grant Indian nationality to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs who fled Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before 2015.
The bill passed the upper house of parliament with 125 members supporting it and 105 opposing.
The move by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government faced stiff resistance from opposition parties, minority groups, and student bodies, with some calling it discriminatory against Muslims.
It is the third key election promise that Modi’s government has delivered since he was re-elected in May, re-energizing his nationalist, Hindu support base and drawing attention away from a slackening economy.
As the upper chamber debated the bill, demonstrations against it turned violent in the country’s ethnically diverse northeast.
Soldiers were deployed in Tripura state and reinforcements put on standby in neighboring Assam, both of which border Bangladesh.
Despite assurances from India’s Home Minister Amit Shah that safeguards will be put in place, people in Assam and surrounding states fear that an influx of settlers could lead to a competition for land and upset the region’s demographic balance.
Some opposition Muslim politicians have also argued that the bill targets their community, which numbers more than 170 million people and is by far India’s largest minority group.
The government has said the new law will be followed by a citizenship register which means Muslims will have to prove they were original residents of India and not refugees from these three countries, potentially rendering some of them stateless.
“NARROW-MINDED“
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said on Monday that Washington should consider sanctions against Shah, a close associate of Modi if India adopts the legislation.
“The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill marks the victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces over India’s pluralism,” said Sonia Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party.
Defending the bill in the upper house, Shah said the new law only sought to help minorities persecuted in Muslim-majority countries contiguous with India.
“Nobody is taking citizenship away from India’s Muslims. This is a bill to give citizenship, not take citizenship away,” Shah said.
In another move criticized by Muslims as discriminatory, the government scrapped the disputed Kashmir region’s autonomy.
Last month, the country’s supreme court also allowed the construction of a Hindu temple at a religious site in Northern India also claimed by Muslims.
A curfew has been imposed in Assam’s main city of Guwahati after police clashed with thousands of protesters, beating them back using water cannons and tear gas.
State authorities in Assam also blocked mobile Internet services in 10 districts, fearing further violence.
Protesters, many of them students, remained on the streets late into Wednesday evening, where bonfires were lit, public property vandalized and vehicles set on fire.
“The bill will take away our rights, language and culture with millions of Bangladeshis getting citizenship,” said Gitimoni Dutta, a college student at the protest.