VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis will voice his opposition to nuclear weapons and honor victims of Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster during a visit to the country that is expected to be a highlight of his upcoming trip to Asia.
The Vatican on Wednesday released the details of Francis’ Nov. 19-26 visit to Thailand and Japan, which includes stops in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which were destroyed by U.S. atomic bombs at the end of World War II.
He will also visit Tokyo and meet survivors of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region in March 2011. The trip to Japan, from Nov. 23 to 26, will mark the first visit to the country by a pontiff in 38 years.
“I feel deeply impressed and have much respect for Japan when I read the story of the martyrs, and the experiences of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Pope Francis told a group of Japanese journalists, according to Vatican News.
The pope said he admires those who were able to rise again after “that infernal trial,” describing the atomic bombings that ended World War II as “monstrous.”
“So now I want to reiterate a truth: Using atomic energy to make war is immoral.”
The pope plans to light the Lamp of Peace, which will be brought from the Vatican, at the Nagasaki Peace Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, according to a Japanese government official.
He will visit both cities on Nov. 24 and meet atomic bomb survivors.
In Nagasaki, Pope Francis will also visit Nishizaka Park — where a monument stands to commemorate the 26 Christians executed in the late 16th century in anti-Christian campaigns led by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi — and hold mass in a baseball stadium.
Nagasaki is rich in the legacy of Christian missionaries dating back to the samurai era, and the visit there is likely to be particularly poignant for Francis: He longed to be a missionary in Japan but was prevented from going because of poor health when he was a young priest in Argentina.
He will meet earthquake victims in Tokyo on Nov. 25, followed by Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Vatican said. On the same day, a large-scale mass will be held at Tokyo Dome.
The pope will leave Japan on Nov. 26 after visiting Sophia University, a Jesuit school in Tokyo based on the teachings of Christianity and the Catholic spirit.
He will become the second pope to visit Japan after John Paul II, who also visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1981.
On Aug. 6, 1945, a U.S. bomber dropped a uranium-core atomic bomb named Little Boy on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140,000 people by the end of that year.
Three days later in Nagasaki, the United States used a plutonium-core atomic bomb known as Fat Man, which led to the deaths of an estimated 74,000 people.
Francis has gone beyond his predecessors in demanding a world without nuclear weapons, saying the Cold War-era policy of nuclear deterrence had provided a false sense of security.
In Thailand, Francis will meet with the supreme Buddhist leader and hold a meeting with other faith leaders, focusing on interfaith dialog on the first leg of his trip. In Bangkok, he is likely to speak out about poverty and human trafficking, both problems in Thailand and issues of concern for the pope.
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