BANGKOK, Thailand -- Pope Francis' visit to Buddhist-majority Thailand
focused attention on Catholic hill tribes and sexual abuse against
women amid improving relations between the two religions quietly
influenced by the army's failure to defeat southern Muslim

During Francis' November 20-23 visit, he also emphasized the need for
Catholics to strengthen links with Buddhists.

"General public opinion holds that Thai Catholics are relatively
'quiet and peaceful'," said Katewadee Kulabkaew, a scholar of Thai
Buddhism's contemporary politics.

"However, those inclined to Buddhist chauvinism argue that Catholicism
may still be a threat to Thai Buddhism," she wrote in an analysis of
Francis' visit published on November 21 by New Mandala, a website
hosted by the Australian National University.

"Nevertheless, the focus of those determined to 'protect' Buddhism is
now centered on Islam. The escalation of violence in Thailand's Deep
South, where Muslim secessionists have previously killed Buddhist
monks and burned down monasteries, sounds much more alarming to the
Buddhist chauvinists than what they consider as insincere peace
dialogue from the Catholics," Ms. Katewadee said.

More than 7,000 people on all sides have died since 2004 in the south
where minority ethnic Malay Muslims are fighting for autonomy or
independence. Most of the dead are Buddhists or Muslims.

In contrast to the south, "in northern Thailand, there is no religious
conflict between Buddhists, Muslims and Christians," said American
Jesuit Father Thomas Michel who ministers and teaches in Chiang Rai in
the north.

In Thailand, "most of the Catholics are of Chinese or Vietnamese
descent, or come from one of the 'hill tribes,' such as the Karen or
Akha," said Father Michel according to a Catholic News Service report
on November 17 from Vatican City.

"In our Chiang Rai diocese, for example, most of the villages are
Akha, and many of them are 100 percent Catholic."

The Pope's visit celebrated the 350th anniversary of establishing the
Apostolic Vicariate of Siam Mission, the country's first Catholic
jurisdiction. After Thailand, he flew to Japan on November 23.

The previous trip to Thailand by a Pope was John Paul II’s visit in 1984.

Today about 390,000 Catholics, less than one percent of the
population, live in this Southeast Asian country.

The church's evangelizing and outreach programs include schools,
hospitals, homes for the elderly and orphanages, and trying to end

But the Pope spent November 22, his last full day in Thailand,
pleading for Thais to be more welcoming to Christianity and perhaps be
inspired to convert.

During a visit to St. Peter's Church on November 22, a worried Francis
said many Thais regard Christianity as "a foreign faith, a religion
for foreigners."

Devotees should "let us give faith a Thai face and flesh," he said.

"It is about stripping the Gospel of its fine, but foreign garb,
letting it sing with the native music of this land and inspiring the
hearts of our brothers and sisters with the same beauty that set our
own hearts on fire."

Francis also touched on the fear some Catholics may have in Thailand
and elsewhere, amid positive relations between the Vatican and

"It is vital that the Church today is able to proclaim the Gospel to
all, in all places, on all occasions, without hesitation and without

On November 22, Francis met leaders from various faiths at
Chulalongkorn University.

More pointedly, he later chose a shrine on the outskirts of Bangkok
dedicated to Blessed Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung as the site to meet
bishops from Thailand and elsewhere in Asia.

Nicolas was a Thai priest who died in 1944 and is considered a
"martyr" by the Vatican, venerated and beatified in 2000 by Pope John
Paul II.

Nicolas symbolizes the worst hostilities suffered by Catholics in
Thailand, but is now also a vivid icon displaying how far away from
those dark days the current relationship has evolved.

In the mid-20th century when war erupted between Paris and Bangkok,
Thais arrested Nicolas in 1941 and accused him of spying for the

Sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, he died behind bars after
contracting tuberculosis and baptizing at least 68 inmates.

"During the early 1940s, the Thai nationalist government sought to
unite the local population though Buddhism while persecuting
Christians in a bid to force them to give up their faith," the Office
of the Archdiocese of Bangkok's UCA News reported.

"The killing of seven innocent Catholics by police in late 1940 is one
of the most tragic episodes of the Thai Church's history," it said.
All seven "martyrs" were beatified by John Paul II in 1989.

On November 22, Francis conducted a second Mass at the 109-year-old,
Renaissance-style Assumption Cathedral along Bangkok's Chao Phraya
River which has a crypt sheltering the remains of bishops plus a wax
figure of Nicolas.

Catholics should use Jesus to strengthen relations with Buddhists and
others, Francis said during Mass at Assumption Cathedral.

"Friendship cultivated with Jesus is the oil needed to light up your
path in life, and the path of all those around you -- your friends and
neighbors, your companions at school and work, including those who
think completely unlike yourselves."

Earlier, on November 21, Francis spotlighted Catholics' improved links
with Buddhists by meeting Thailand's Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism,
the country’s highest-ranking Buddhist monk, in the ornate Wat
Rachabophit temple.

Unlike Catholicism, Buddhism does not believe in a creator god.

"The majority of Thais have drunk deeply from the sources of Buddhism,
which have imbued their way of venerating life and their ancestors,
and leading a sober lifestyle based on contemplation, detachment, hard
work and discipline," Francis said.

Aside from Catholic-Buddhist relations, other issues attracted Francis' concern.

He said international effort was needed to defend women and children
"who are violated and exposed to every form of exploitation,
enslavement, violence and abuse."

Francis made the remarks in a speech on November 21 while meeting
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at his Government House office.

Mr. Prayuth responded: "We have sought to strengthen the family
institution and ensure equal opportunities for all groups in society,
especially women and children."

Francis later visited St. Louis Hospital established in 1898 by
Catholic missionaries.

At Amphorn Royal Palace, he had a private audience with King Maha
Vajiralongkorn who wore a white uniform while accompanied by Queen

Throughout Francis' visit, he was accompanied by his second cousin
Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, 77, who translated.

The Argentine-born nun, clad in a white habit, helps administer a
Catholic girls' school in northern Thailand.

Francis gave his first public Mass at a Bangkok sports stadium on the
evening of November 21.

A packed audience cheered when they saw him arrive, standing in a
white vehicle which drove onto the sports track.

Many attendees wore colorful tribal clothing, reflecting their origins
in the northern hills.

At the end of the Mass, many of the 60,000 attendees turned on their
smartphones' flashlight and rhythmically waved the phones' white light
back and forth during a live choral.