Pope top billing in Philippines from cathedral to arena

Pope Francis will celebrate mass at a centuries-old cathedral and later meet worshippers in a stadium setting more familiar to rock stars as his trip to the Philippines gets into full swing on Friday. 

The Argentinian pontiff enjoyed a rapturous welcome when he arrived in the Catholic Church`s Asian stronghold on Thursday night, with hundreds of thousands of cheering people crowding his motorcade route.

"When I saw him wave, it was like a thrill went through me," 35-year-old housewife Ivy Japlos told AFP after waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of the pope as he passed by smiling and waving.

The official engagements of the pontiff`s five-day Philippines trip will begin on Friday morning with a 21-gun salute and a red-carpet welcome at the presidential palace.

He will then say mass at Manila Cathedral, which was originally built in the 1500s when Catholicism was introduced to the Southeast Asian archipelago during the early years of Spanish colonial rule.

Later in the day the 78-year-old will meet thousands of devotees for a more relaxed prayer service at Manila`s top concert arena, where music fans have flocked in recent years to see the likes of Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.

Francis is on a week-long tour of Asia that began in Sri Lanka. 

It is his second trip to the region in five months, signalling the importance the Vatican places on Asia`s growth potential for the Church.

The Philippines has long been the Church`s stronghold in the region, with 80 percent of the nation`s 100 million people members of the faith.

The high point of the pope`s trip is expected to be an open-air mass on Sunday at a park in Manila, with organisers preparing for up to six million people.

Organisers have said that, if the crowd is as big as expected, it will surpass the previous record for a papal gathering of five million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.

Francis is also due to visit communities in the central Philippines devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan, which left 7,350 people dead or missing in 2013.

On Saturday, he is scheduled to deliver a mass to tens of thousands of people in Tacloban, one of the worst-hit cities, and have lunch with 30 typhoon survivors.

"The heart of the message will be the poor, the poor who want to move forward, who have suffered from the typhoon and are still suffering its consequences," the pope told reporters en route to the Philippines.

His trip to Tacloban will also highlight his concern over the growing threat of climate change, which the United Nations said exacerbated Haiyan`s ferocity.

In his press conference aboard the plane from Sri Lanka, the pope called on world leaders to show more courage in negotiations to seal a global pact on climate change at a summit in Paris this year.
Francis also weighed into a global debate on freedom of expression on Thursday, condemning killing in God`s name but warning religion could not be insulted or mocked.

"To kill in the name of God is an absurdity," Francis said when asked about last week`s assault by Islamist gunmen on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people died.

But he also said "each religion has its dignity" and "there are limits".

"If a good friend speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched, and that`s normal. You cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people`s faith, you cannot mock it," he said.

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