World Bulletin/News Desk
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of the Philippines capital of Manila on Thursday to welcome Pope Francis on his first visit to Asia's largest Catholic nation amid one of the biggest security operations in the country's history.
The other pontiffs to visit the Philippines were both targets of assassination attempts, prompting the deployment of nearly 50,000 soldiers and police in the capital and in the central Philippine province of Leyte for his weekend trip there.
On Wednesday, President Benigno Aquino personally inspected motorcade routes and public venues, which were lined with black-and-white concrete barriers topped by thick wire mesh to control eager crowds.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas said Aquino was willing to serve as Francis' "personal bodyguard" to ensure his safety. In a televised address on Monday, Aquino appealed to Filipinos to follow security rules after two people were killed in a stampede during a religious procession on Friday.
Asked if he was nervous ahead of the Pope's arrival, Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Senior Superintendent Wilben Mayor said: "For a long time now, yes. This is very challenging for the PNP."
In 1970, a Bolivian artist dressed as a priest tried to stab Pope Paul VI when he arrived at Manila airport.
In 1995, a group of militants conspired to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Manila, a plan uncovered by police after an accidental fire in the militants' rented apartment.
Snipers will be positioned at key points around Manila and Tacloban during Francis' visit, and sniffer dogs will check sites he is due to visit.
Church bells tolled across the Philippines as the papal plane touched down at Manila's international airport, as crowds inside the airport and those lining the streets into the capital jumped, clapped and cheered when Francis stepped out of the plane.
The atmosphere was festive as about 1,500 schoolchildren welcomed the Pope with lively dances, waving white cloths, and red, white and blue umbrellas to form the Philippine flag. Their shirts were printed with the message "Mabuhay (Welcome) Pope Francis!"
Francis hugged two children, both abandoned by their parents, who gave him bouquets of white and yellow flowers.
"I wish the Pope will bless me so that my mother will come back to us," one of the children, 9-year-old Lani Ortilla, said before the Pope arrive. "We hope the Pope gives us blessings so that Filipinos can change for the better."
The 78-year-old pontiff will bring a message of compassion to millions of poor Filipinos suffering from the effects of corruption and decades-old insurgencies, as well as the problems faced by millions of impoverished and the families of the 10 million-12 million Filipino migrant workers overseas.
He will visit the central province of Leyte, which is still struggling to recover from Typhoon Haiyan that killed 6,300 people in 2013. About two million people are expected to attend an open-air mass on Saturday at Tacloban City airport, almost completely destroyed by Haiyan.
In Manila, around six million people are expected to hear Francis say Mass at Rizal park, the largest in the capital, on Sunday, likely exceeding the record crowd of 5 million during Pope John Paul II's 1995 World Youth Day Mass.
The government has declared a three-day public holiday to clear traffic in Manila, a city of 12 million people, and has even closed financial markets.
The Philippine weather bureau expects a tropical storm will dump heavy rain on Francis's devoted followers during his four-day stay in the Philippines.Last Mod: 15 Ocak 2015, 12:49