MANILA, Philippines – Pope Francis said Thursday that his visit to the Philippines, Asia’s largest Catholic nation, will focus on the plight of the poor, the exploited and victims of injustice – themes sure to resonate in a nation where poverty afflicts nearly a fourth of the 100 million people.
Church bells tolled across the country and hundreds of children danced and waved small Philippine and Vatican flags as the pontiff emerged from his plane and was welcomed by well-wishers led by President Benigno Aquino III. A sudden gust of wind blew off his papal cap seconds after he appeared, and Francis grabbed futilely for it and then smiled and descended the stairs from the aircraft.
The pontiff revealed his priorities for the second leg of his Asian trip to reporters during his flight from Sri Lanka to Manila. He also commented on the recent attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, saying there are limits to freedom of expression, especially when it ridicules or insults someone’s faith.
But Francis insisted that it was an “aberration” to kill in the name of God and said religion can never be used to justify violence.
For his visit to the Philippines, he said the “central nut of the message will be the poor, the poor who want to go forward, the poor who suffered from Typhoon Haiyan and are continuing to suffer the consequences.”
Powerful Typhoon Haiyan left more than 7,300 dead and missing and leveled entire villages in the central Philippines in 2013, including Leyte province, where the pope will visit Saturday to console survivors.
He said he also had in mind the poor who “face so many injustices – social, spiritual, existential.”
“I think about them,” he said, referring to a recent lunch he had with some Filipino workers at the Vatican who had left their families for jobs overseas.
The Philippines is one of the world’s largest labor exporters. About a tenth of the population has left the country in search of work, and tales of their abuse and exploitation are common.
President Aquino has waged a campaign against poverty, an issue close to Francis’ heart, although the Philippine leader has clashed with the local Roman Catholic Church over a reproductive health law that promotes artificial birth control. Congress, which is dominated by Aquino’s allies, passed the legislation in 2012.
Among the pope’s welcomers on the tarmac were a boy and a girl from a shelter for street children who handed him flowers. Francis embraced and kissed them.
“I told him bienvenido (welcome),” 9-year-old Lanie Ortillo said, adding the pontiff smiled and replied, “Yes, bienvenido.” She added, “While I was hugging him I prayed that he could help more children, not only the two of us.”
Francis then boarded his white, open-sided popemobile and his motorcade began rolling along the 11-kilometer (6.8-mile) route to the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila, where he will stay.
Tens of thousands of people called his name and snapped pictures from behind concrete barriers topped by iron fencing and guarded by policemen along the entire stretch in a trip beamed live on TV nationwide. Francis constantly shifted from left to right, smiling and waving.
The government has declared national holidays during the pope’s visit, which runs through Monday.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, said he hopes the visit by Francis, the first Latin American head of the 1.2 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church, would be festive and spiritually uplifting and nurture compassion at a time when the country is still recovering from recent deadly disasters, including Haiyan.
“It’s like a big, big, big, big national fiesta,” a beaming Tagle said in an interview on the eve of the pope’s arrival. The visit, he said, “comes at that point when people would really be helped by a moral and spiritual boost coming from someone who really cares.”
Meetings with Filipino families, Roman Catholic Church leaders and young people are also slated.
During his time in Sri Lanka, the pope traveled to the jungles of the war-torn north for a show of solidarity with the victims of the country’s 25-year civil war, urging people to forgive one another “for all the evil which this land has known.”
“It is very important to keep our country peaceful and have our religious strength become more and more after this visit,” said Sumith Periera, an engineer who came to see the pope off.
The pope’s trip has given Philippine authorities daunting security challenges, including an outdoor Mass in a historic Manila park on Sunday that officials say could draw a record 6 million people.
About 50,000 policemen and troops have been deployed to secure the pope in a country where relatively small numbers of al-Qaida-inspired militants remain a threat in the south despite more than a decade of U.S.-backed military offensives.
Spanish colonialists introduced Christianity in the 16th century and today just over 80 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people are Catholics, with other Christians making up about 12 percent. Muslims account for 5.6 percent, most of them in the south.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Oliver Teves contributed to this report.