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A barbed-wire crown of thorns caps Pope Francis’s politically-charged Asia visit

A woman in South Korea holds up a Pope Francis rug as she waits for him to address the crowd.
Reuters/Lee Jin-man/Pool
The Pope Francis rug has universal appeal.
By Heather Timmons
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Today, on the last day of his first Asia trip, Pope Francis was presented with two very different items—a crown of thorns and a butterfly-shaped pin.

The two are potent symbols of the tough diplomatic terrain Pope Francis must negotiate as he spreads the Roman Catholic church’s message in Asia. The region is considered an important growth area for the religion, with the ranks of devotees in some countries growing faster than in Europe and the US. But Asia is riddled with deep-seated animosities that he, and all foreign dignitaries, must navigate carefully. Catholicism’s history with colonialism adds extra layers of complexity.

Perhaps aware of these challenges, Pope Francis’s predecessor never visited Asia. One of the current pope’s main reasons for going was to beatify 124 Korean Catholics who were killed in a gory parade of beheadings and hangings in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He also emphasized that, this time, the church did not come to the region as a “conqueror.”

The crown of thorns, dedicated by Seoul Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, was made of barbed wire from the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and inscribed with the Latin phrase “Ut unum sint,” or “That they may be one,” the Associated Press reported. While the phrase is traditionally a call for Christian unity, the materials it was made from echoed the pope’s message in his final mass, when he prayed for “reconciliation in this Korean family.”

The butterfly pin, on other hand, was a gift from a former “comfort woman,” one of tens of thousands of Koreans, Filipinos, and other Asian women forced into prostitution by the Japanese during World War II. The pope wore the pin throughout his final mass. Although Japanese officials have apologized for the events, and many of the women they affected are no longer alive, the subject remains highly charged, particularly after Japanese right wing politicians said earlier this year that some women’s claims were fabricated.

Although the Pope was warmly received in South Korea, the church’s outreach efforts to China ahead of the trip—which included “best wishes” to premier Xi Jinping and “the divine blessing of peace and well-being upon the nation”—did not appear to make many diplomatic inroads. Chinese authorities barred about 50 of their citizens from traveling to South Korea for a youth event during the pope’s visit, and even arrested some, organizers told Reuters. China has not had official relations with the Vatican since the Communist Party took control; Chinese officials created a separate Catholic Church that does not recognize the Vatican as its head.

North Korea, meanwhile, rejected an invitation from the church to the final mass on Monday, an organizing committee spokesman said. Instead, on the day of the pope’s arrival, North Korea fired test missiles about 35 minutes before he was due to land (albeit hundreds of kilometers away), then a scientist implied that Pope Francis has done little to help the people of the world.

The pope also found time for less diplomatically sensitive activities during his South Korea trip, including riding through crowds in the popemobile:

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, Pool
Pope Francis waves to crowds in Seoul on August 16.

Blessing (sometimes reluctant) children:

Reuters/Lee Jin-man/Pool
A reluctant child eschews the Pope’s blessing in Seoul.

And being waved at by local nuns:

AP Photo/Kim Hong-Ji, Pool
Nuns wave at Pope Francis from Haemi Castle in South Korea.

While just 10% of South Korea’s 50 million population are Catholic, the Pope drew huge crowds wherever he went, making the trip a massive public relations success despite the barbs from China and North Korea. South Koreans are huge Pope Francis fans, a Pew Research poll shows, with a larger percentage of the population viewing him favorably than in America:

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The Pope’s warm welcome in South Korea may pale in comparison to his reception he can expect on his next Asia trip, to the Philippines, where about 80% of the population is Catholic. Five months ahead of the January 2015 visit, hotels in Tacloban City are already fully booked, the Philippine Inquirer reports, and additional visiting devotees may be forced to stay in the private homes of local residents.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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