Seoul (AFP) - Pope Francis arrives in Seoul on Thursday looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards.
His five-day visit to South Korea is recognition for one of Asia's fastest-growing, most devoted and most influential Roman Catholic communities, and will feature a special "reconciliation" mass with a message for isolated North Korea.
But the real goal is longer-term and much wider-ranging.
The pope will bring a message about the "future of Asia" and will use his trip to "speak to all the countries on the continent", the Vatican's number two, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in a television interview.
Early in his pontificate, Francis made it clear that Asia, which his predecessor Benedict never visited, would be a priority.
The last papal visit to Asia was by John Paul II to India in 1999, a glaring 15-year gap for a region where the Church is making some spectacular gains but where Catholics still only account for 3.2 percent of the population.
The pope's flight to South Korea takes him over China -- potentially the greatest prize of all but also the hardest to claim. Beijing maintains a state-controlled Catholic Church, which rejects the Vatican's authority.
China "is a great cultural challenge, very great," Francis said in a recent interview with the Italian daily Il Messaggero.
Flying over China will offer Francis the rare opportunity to speak directly to Beijing since the pope always sends a message to leaders of those countries he travels over.
When John Paul visited South Korea in 1989, Beijing refused to let his plane fly through Chinese airspace.
China's Communist regime broke ties with the Vatican in 1951 and they remain firmly at odds over which side has the authority to ordain priests.
- Speaking to the region -
Francis will have a chance to address believers across the region on Friday when he meets several thousand young Catholics gathered in South Korea for Asian Youth Day.
"From the vantage of the global demographics of Roman Catholicism, the pope's presence is a powerful symbol of the Vatican's recognition that it is in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa that the Church is growing most prominently," said Lionel Jensen, an expert on religion in Asia at the University of Notre Dame.
"His mere presence in Asia and the fact that it has already been announced that the Pope will visit the Philippines and Sri Lanka in 2015 underscores the new and very significant orientation toward Asia," Jensen said.
South Korea provides a model that the Vatican can only hope other Asian countries might follow.
The economic "miracle" that turned it from a war-devastated backwater to an export powerhouse and Asia's fourth largest economy in a little over five decades, was accompanied by an equally dramatic boom in Christianity.
Christians now comprise the largest religious bloc. While Protestants make up the majority, Catholics are growing faster -- accounting for more than 10 percent of the 50 million population with tens of thousands of new baptisms every year.
- Martyrs and North Korea -
Around one million people are expected to descend on downturn Seoul for the centrepiece of the papal visit -- an open-air mass on Saturday that will see Francis beatify 124 martyrs persecuted during the early days of the Korean Catholic Church in the 18th and 19th centuries.
And on the final day, Francis will conduct a special reconciliation mass in Seoul to send a message to North Korea, where religion is subject to the tightest state control and unauthorised worship is considered criminal.
The pope will also hold brief private audiences with survivors of April's ferry disaster and with some elderly "comfort women" forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels.
The ferry tragedy in which about 300 people died, blamed on regulatory failures and official incompetence, rocked South Korea and left many questioning whether too much had been sacrificed in the name of development.
The pope is expected to address that particular issue, warning of a "moral and spiritual crisis" threatening hyper-competitive, consumer-obsessed societies.