Manila, Philippines – Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, has arrived in the Philippines for a five-day trip, seen as an effort to reinforce church membership, and highlight the issue of climate change as he meets victims of Typhoon Haiyan that killed thousands in the country in 2013.
Francis, 78, arrived in the capital Manila on Thursday afternoon amid unprecedented security preparations. An estimated 37,000 police and military personnel have been deployed in areas he is expected to visit.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and leaders of the Catholic church met Francis at the airport. The country’s president, a Catholic himself, greeted Francis with a kiss on the hand.
|Commentary on the pope’s visit to Philippines|
“After a long wait, Pope Francis is finally here,” Cardinal Luis Tagle, the top Catholic cleric in the Philippines, said in a video statement. “Despite his age, he came all the way here just to be with us.”
The last time a pope visited the Philippines was in 1995, during the time of Pope John Paul II.
Pope Francis flew in from Sri Lanka, the first of his two-nation Asian visit, where he called for political reconciliation following the country’s civil war. He also canonised its first saint.
Francis’ trip has set off a wave of religious fervour across the Phillipines, where 80 percent of the 100 million population are Catholics. Government and religious leaders have been preparing for months for the visit.
Church bells rang throughout the Philippines to welcome the pope as he set foot at the Manila airport. Oversized posters and banners greeting him hang in lampposts and railings, competing with billboards selling cars, real estate and liquor.
Hundreds of thousands of people wearing shirts with Francis’ image lined up the streets of Manila waving Vatican and Philippine flags, hours before his arrival.
Authorities have repeatedly appealed to the public not to rush towards the papal vehicle during his motorcade. For security reasons, cellphone signals along the pope’s route have been turned off.
An estimated six million people are reported to attend a church service that Francis will lead on Sunday. But his visit is posing a security challenge for the Philippines, where there have been previous attempts on the lives of visiting popes in 1970 and 1995.
On January 17, Francis is scheduled to fly to the central city of Tacloban, the worst hit area of Typhoon Haiyan. While there, he is expected to address the issue on the environment, a preview of the first ever papal proclamation on climate change later this year.
It has been 20 years since Pope John Paul II visited the country, and so many things have changed
Senator Loren Legarda, chairman of the Philippine Senate environment committee, told Al Jazeera that it is significant that the pope is “very vocal” in trying to influence government policies on climate change.
“This shows that the pope really understands the needs and concerns of the poor,” she said.
“Natural hazards have rendered vulnerable populations as climate refugees in their own communities. These people are seeking climate justice for a catastrophe they never created or caused.”
However, a tropical storm is threatening to derail that visit to Tacloban.
Francis’ visit also comes at a time of several social changes in the Philippines.
Recently, the government’s introduction of artificial birth control methods, had been fought every step of the way by the Catholic church. The church has also been resisting moves to legalise divorce in the Philippines, the only state aside from the Vatican, where the practice is outlawed.
Over the past few years, the Philippines has also seen a sharp increase in HIV-AIDS cases. The government is being blamed for its unwillingness to confront the issue, which remains to be a taboo subject in the predominantly Catholic country.
Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, a sociology professor at the Jesuit university Ateneo de Manila, told Al Jazeera that many younger Catholics in the Philippines “are disillusioned by the institutionalised leadership” of the church that is “detached from the reality”.
“It has been 20 years since Pope John Paul II visited the country, and so many things have changed,” he said. “Certainly the Filipino religiosity has changed to a great extent.”
Cornelio said that Francis could bring back disenchanted Filipinos to the church, as he presents an “authentic spirituality” focused on helping the poor, and more welcoming of those in the fringes of the society.
Aside from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, Francis had also visited Brazil, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, South Korea, Albania, Turkey and the EU parliament in France. He is also reported to visit the US in September.