Pope John Paul on Wednesday began a gruelling 24,000 tour which takes him from the frozen wastes of Alaska to the rain forests of Papua New Guinea. Jonathan Petre looks at the dangers and challenges in store. Additional material from Desmond O'Grady in Rome.
POPE JOHN Paul began his eleven-day, 24,000-mile tour of four Far East countries on Wednesday amid growing fears that terrorists are planning to kill him.
Even though similar fears always surround any foreign visit by the Pope, particularly to an area as politically unstable as the Far East, police are taking the threats seriously.
United States intelligence agencies suspect Communist North Korea might be behind an assassination attempt on the Pope during his visit to South Korea which began on Wednesday.
But just as dangerous as the lone assassin is the possibility of an outbreak of rioting and violent clashes between demonstrators intent on drawing police and the world's attention to the human rights record of the South Korean government.
If the human rights issue is to prove explosive, then the Pope's visit to the city of Kwangju in the South West could prove the flashpoint.
There memories of government atrocities are still fresh. In 1980 government troops used brutal methods to crush a citizens rebellion against the imposition of martial law.
The government claimed that only 170 people died in the rioting; other estimates put the figure at ten times that.
Archbishop Victorinus Youn of Kwangju remembers his horror as he watched helplessly from his house as soldiers killed, beat and bayonetted students. Among these later sentenced by martial law courts were two Catholic priests.
The Pope's theme at Kwangju is "Reconciliation" and he is likely to expand this theme into a criticism of the government's human rights record, the source of much tension is the split between South Korea and the Vatican.
Resentment in the city is still deep, and observers fear that the Pope's words could provide a catalyst for violence. As one observer put it: "relatives of those killed number as many as 20,000 people. They won't talk about it. Their silence is frightening.
"The government fears eventual revenge, that its members will be killed in retaliation if an opportunity is given."
There are signs, however, that the human rights atmosphere is improving. The government of President Chan Doo have recently restored the rights of 202 blacklisted politicians and freed many students gaoled for anti-government activities.
The Pope's four days in South Korea is the highpoint of the tour. He is paying tribute to the remarkably fast growth of Catholicism in the country since it first arrived 200 years ago, and he will preside over the canonisation of 103 martyrs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Church has more than quadrupled in size since the Second World War, and now stands at about 1.5 million members. It is expected to outdistance Buddhism by the end of the century as the country's leading religion.
Even more encouraging for the Church is that it is now firmly indiginous; all but three of the 19 bishops are local.
The Pope's call 'for reconciliation will not only focus on the human rights situation. He is likely to make a strong call for reconciliation between North and South Korea, and between the diverse religions which coexist in the region.
He may also take the opportunity to put out feelers towards China, a country which is exerting an increasing fascination for the Vatican.
When the Pope arrives in Papua New Guinea, the second stop of his tour where he is to spend two days, he will be greeted by hordes of children wearing tee-shirts that bear the slogait: "John Paul II, mi likim yu."
His command of pidgin English, which he has been studying with great intensity over recent months, will be put to the test when he uses it to say Mass. His linguistic abilities will have already been displayed in South Korea where he will celebrate Mass in Korean.
Priests working in Papua New Guinea see the Pope's visit as an important morale booster for missionaries and laity in a territory one and a half times the size of Italy in whole. Catholics number 900,000 in a population of three million.
One point the Pope will stress is the importance of native involvement in the country. One priest said this was "a particularly critical element in a place where most of the clergy are from outside the country."
Papua New Guinea is a country of enormous contrasts; for example, from some of the most isolated and inaccessible villages it is possible to dial direct to Europe or the United States.
Although it achieved selfgovernment only in 1975, it has already constructed an impressive political system on democratic lines.
A Catholic priest, Fr John Momis, was a key figure in drafting the constitution.
While in Papua New Guinea, the Pope will take one day, May 9, to visit nearby Solomon Islands, where he is scheduled to celebrate Mass at Honiara, a city on the island of Guadalcanal. and the scene of a famous World War II battle.
The Solomon Islands, a former Australian protectorate, has fewer than 60 miles of paved roads, fewer than 1,000 cars for
its 260,000 people and a per capita annual income of about £250. About 24,000 of the country's 250,000 inhabitants are Catholic.
The Pope's last stop is Thailand, where he will spend only 35 hours. Less than one half of one percent of the population is Catholic, so the visit has a distinctly ecumenical air with the Pope scheduled to meet the supreme Buddhist patriarch and King Bhumihol Adulyadej.
Buddhism is the official religion, but the Thai constitution calls the king the "upholder of all religions."
Fr Iker Villanueva, the Jesuit regional superior, is in no doubt as to the value of the visit. "The visit will do much to strengthen
the life of Catholics here," he said, adding that "there is pretty much a feeling that to be a Thai is to be a Buddhist; to choose to be a Catholic is to put oneself a bit out of the mainstream of Thai society."
Fr Villanueva, who has lived in Thailand for 22 years, said that Catholics have an influence far beyond their numbers, since many Thai leaders were educated in Catholic schools.
The Pope is scheduled to deliver more than 40 homilies and talks during the eleven day tour. The effects of his words will take some months to filter through into Church life in the Far East, but his visit will have been a marvellous fillip for Catholic confidence in the often turbulent waters of the Pacific.