Manila, Philippines – Pope Francis has led hundreds of thousands of rain-soaked Catholic worshippers in an open-air church service in central Philippines, ahead of an approaching tropical storm in the region that was worst hit by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
Francis arrived in the city of Tacloban on Saturday morning, leaving the capital Manila more than hour earlier than scheduled, to avoid the impending landfall of Typhoon Mekkhala.
The Vatican said meeting Haiyan survivors was the pope’s “top priority” while visiting the Philippines, the country with the largest Catholic population in Asia.
While in Tacloban, Francis also visited the mass grave of thousands of Filipinos killed when Haiyan hit.
Francis’ visit, however, was cut short, as he rushed back to Manila because of the new storm.
One person was killed when the scaffolding for a stage, used by the pope hours earlier, collapsed due to the strong winds.
Bad weather was also blamed for the aborted take-off of a plane carrying top government officials, who attended the pope’s event in Tacloban. Just minutes earlier, the plane carrying the pope took off for Manila.
During his meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on Friday, Francis praised the “resilience” of the survivors “in the face of the natural disaster.”
“When I saw from Rome that catastrophe, I felt that I have to be here. And on those very days, I decided to come here,” a raincoat-clad Francis told the crowd, as rain poured and wind lashed continuously.
“This visit is meant to express my closeness to our brothers and sisters who endured suffering, loss and devastation.”
On his way to Manila from Sri Lanka on Thursday, Francis talked about the issue of climate change during a press conference aboard his plane.
“I don’t know if climate change is all man’s fault, but the majority is. For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature. We have, in a sense, lorded it over nature, over Mother Earth. I think man has gone too far.”
Following the religious service held next to the damaged Tacloban airport, Francis will head to the area’s Catholic main headquarters to console victims of Haiyan, which killed an estimated 8,000 people in the region.
Francis is in the Philippines for a five-day visit, seen as an effort to bolster its membership, and address social issues such as government corruption and the environment.