Millions to welcome Pope on Asia trip

Pope Francis waves to the crowd while departing the Metropolitan Cathedral in the Popemobile after arriving in Rio. (Getty)

Pope Francis will be gladdening the hearts of millions of Catholics as he embarks on a tour of Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Pope Francis will immerse himself in some of Asia's most fervent Catholicism during a trip to the Philippines and Sri Lanka starting Tuesday, with millions of devotees set to turn out.

The Argentinian pontiff with a man-of-the-people reputation could attract one of the biggest gatherings ever for a pope during an open-air mass in the Philippine capital of Manila.

The January 18 event may draw up to six million people, offering a pulsating example of Asia's status as a dynamic growth region for the Catholic Church - but also creating a security nightmare.

The pope's trip, which begins in Sri Lanka, comes just five months after he visited South Korea, signalling the huge importance the Vatican places on Asia and its potential for more followers.

"This second trip to Asia... is a message in itself for this great continent. It is necessary to have the pope return to this important part of the world," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said as the 78-year-old pontiff prepared for the week-long visit.

In Sri Lanka, the pope will preach reconciliation as the majority Buddhist nation of 20 million people continues to endure ethnic conflict following the end in 2009 of nearly four decades of civil war that pitted separatist Tamils against Sinhalese.

Religious violence has continued since then, with attacks on mosques and churches by nationalist Buddhist groups who say minorities have undue influence on the island.

But he will land in Sri Lanka just days after Maithripala Sirisena scored a stunning peaceful election victory over veteran strongman Mahinda Rajapakse, a result that offers hope for future peace prospects.

Sri Lanka has a sizeable Catholic minority of about 1.5 million - but it is when Francis reaches the Philippines on Thursday that he can expect to feel the most vibrant and colourful forces of the region's Catholic faith.

Security will be a major issue throughout the pontiff's Asia trip, but Philippine Church officials have said he will not travel in a bulletproof "popemobile" because he wants to be closer to his flock.

Source AAP

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