BANGKOK - Pope Francis paid tribute Friday to Catholics in Thailand who suffered or were killed for their faith in the past and urged today's Thais not to consider Christianity a "foreign" religion.
The pope was on his last full day of a visit to Thailand, where the dominant culture is closely tied to Buddhism, although the Catholic minority of fewer than 1% were generally treated well in modern times.
On Friday, Francis traveled to Wat Roman, a mostly Catholic area on the outskirts of the bustling capital of Bangkok.
World War II era priest
The pope visited a modern sanctuary built in honor of Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, a Thai priest who died in 1944. The son of Christian converts from Buddhism, he was arrested for ringing a church bell during a period dominated by an anti-Western government suspicious of foreign influences, such as the French colonial powers in neighboring countries.
The priest was sentenced to 15 years in prison and died of tuberculosis in a hospital where he was treated badly and denied proper care because he was Catholic.
In a talk to priests and nuns gathered in the church, Francis expressed his gratitude to those he said had offered the "silent martyrdom of fidelity and daily commitment" in the past.
In 1940, seven Catholics, including three teenage girls, were killed by Thai police in the northeastern province of Nakhon Phanom. Pope John Paul II later declared them martyrs.
The World War II period and other spells of persecution are considered aberrations and today relations between Buddhists and Catholics are generally very good.
During the reign of Thailand's King Narai 350 years ago, the Vatican formally established its "Mission de Siam."
Although missionaries failed to achieve mass conversions, they were largely tolerated by the Buddhist majority and particularly the royal court.
Thai face of Catholicism
Since the start of his pontificate in 2013, Francis has preached that the Church should grow by attraction and not by proselytizing, or conversion campaigns.
This has provoked criticism from some conservatives who favor an aggressive approach and largely oppose what is known as "inculturation," or adapting Church teachings to local culture.
Francis urged priests and nuns to find more ways to talk about their religion in local terms, saying he had learned "with some pain, that for many people, Christianity is a foreign faith, a religion for foreigners."
He added, "Let us give faith a Thai face and flesh, which involves much more than making translations."
Meeting Thai bishops in the same shrine complex later, Francis once again talked about issues such as human trafficking and exploitation.
On Thursday he condemned the exploitation of women and children for prostitution in Thailand, which is notorious for its sex tourism, saying the violence, abuse and enslavement they suffer are evils to be uprooted.
Francis was scheduled to meet leaders of other religions and celebrate a Mass in Bangkok's Assumption Cathedral on Friday afternoon, before leaving on Saturday for Japan.