Conflicts await the Pope on tour of Asia

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The Independent Online
Undeterred by old age, illness and insistent reports of his imminent demise, Pope John Paul sets out on an ambitious 11-day tour of Asia and Australia today, hoping his charisma and deep well-springs of energy can help overcome a plethora of poli tical and religious controversies along his route.

The 21,000-mile tour of the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Australia and Sri Lanka will bring the Pope into direct conflict with birth-control campaigners, women-priest advocates, militant Tamils, dissident Catholics, hostile Protestants and angry Buddhists.

It is the kind of challenge on which the 74-year-old pontiff has thrived in the past. He will clearly be hoping for a little of the pastoral magic that has sustained him through his 62 previous foreign trips.

But this is no longer the same Karol Wojtyla who championed Solidarity in Poland and campaigned successfully for the overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Recovering from a number of illnesses, including a hip replacement that still causes him pain, he is now visibly older and slower. He uses a cane and has had to give up the energetic regimen of hill-walking, canoeing and skiing that once exhausted his entourage.

But the Pope will take comfort from the fact that the Asian trip is going ahead at all. Last September he could not stoop to kiss the earth on arrival in Zagreb, and a month later was forced to cancel a planned trip to the United States.

Obviously feeling stronger, John Paul joked with Polish bishops at the weekend that he was not "doing all that badly". His aides are nevertheless worried about the demands of the time-changes and tropical heat in Asia, and have allowed for plenty of breaks in the Pope's schedule.

The first and most important stop is the Philippines, Asia's only majority Christian country, where the Pope plans to lead hundreds of thousands of people in a ceremony on Sunday to mark World Youth Day.

He will be walking into the middle of a controversy over President Fidel Ramos's campaign for population control through the artificial contraceptives the Pope has consistently condemned. A few hundred Protestants demonstrated in Manila against the Pope yesterday, urging their Catholic fellow countrymen to "glorify God, not the Pope".

The Manila government has taken steps to appease the pontiff, however, offering to put diplomatic pressure on China and Vietnam to ease their restrictive treatment of Catholics. A delegation of Chinese Catholics may meet the Pope if time permits.

The main focus of the rest of the trip is a series of beatifications, although church and temporal politics are bound to intervene as well. In Australia, John Paul is likely to defend his stand against women priests to a group of Catholics who have explicitly advocated a change in policy.

In Sri Lanka, which the Pope has never before visited, his security could be threatened by Tamil Tigers fighting for independence in the north and east of the country.

He will also be confronted by Buddhist leaders demanding an apology for his recent description of their religion as negative. They have threatened to boycott his trip, and the atmosphere is tense. Yesterday the altar of a Catholic church north of Colombowas set on fire by unknown attackers.

If the Pope gets his way, the Asian trip will be anything but a last hurrah. He has already talked about seeing in the third millennium. Last weekend, on a visit to street cleaners in Rome, he also made it clear he is already thinking about his next foreign trip.

"This crib," he said, pointing to a Christmas display, "represents a land in which I hope to make a pilgrimage. The date is drawing closer." John Paul would be the first modern pontiff to visit Israel, a country with which the Vatican established diplomatic ties only last year.

His aides have suggested he might make a trip to Israel as early as the spring.