MANILA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Manila on Thursday, cheering Pope Francis as he began his first visit to Asia’s largest Catholic nation amid one of the biggest security operations in Philippine history.
The other pontiffs to visit the Philippines were both targets of assassination attempts, prompting the deployment of nearly 50,000 soldiers and police in the capital and in the central Philippine province of Leyte for his weekend trip there.
Earlier this week, the Vatican denied Italian newspaper reports that U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials had informed the Vatican that there could be an imminent attack by Islamist militants.
On Wednesday, President Benigno Aquino personally inspected motorcade routes and public venues, which were lined with black-and-white concrete barriers topped by thick wire mesh to control eager crowds.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas said Aquino was willing to serve as Francis’ “personal bodyguard” to ensure his safety. In a televised address on Monday, Aquino appealed to Filipinos to follow security rules after two people were killed in a stampede during a religious procession on Friday.
Asked if he was nervous ahead of the Pope’s arrival, Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Senior Superintendent Wilben Mayor said: “For a long time now, yes. This is very challenging for the PNP.”
In 1970, a Bolivian artist dressed as a priest tried to stab Pope Paul VI when he arrived at Manila airport. The Pope sustained minor chest wounds from the attack.
In 1995, a group of Islamist militants, including the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, conspired to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Manila. But an accidental fire in an apartment in Manila led to the discovery of the bomb plot days before the Pope’s visit.
Aquino said there was no known threat in the country to Francis’ life, but security officials were not taking any chances. Snipers will be positioned at key points around Manila and Tacloban during the trip, with sniffer dogs deployed at sites he will visit.
Asked by reporters aboard the papal plane to Manila if he felt vulnerable to an assassination attempt or an attack, Francis said he was more worried about others rather than himself, and that he was confident about security measures in the Vatican and during his trips.
“I am in God’s hands,” he said, joking about having asked God to spare him a painful death. “If anything should happen to me, I have told the Lord, I ask you only to give me the grace that it doesn’t hurt because I am not courageous when confronted with pain. I am very timid.”
Church bells tolled across the Philippines when the papal plane touched down in Manila, and crowds inside the airport and those lining the streets into the capital jumped, clapped and cheered when Francis stepped out of the plane.
The atmosphere was festive as about 1,500 schoolchildren welcomed the Pope with lively dances, waving white cloth, and red, white and blue umbrellas to form the Philippine flag. Their shirts were printed with the message “Mabuhay (Welcome) Pope Francis!”
Francis hugged two children, both abandoned by their parents, who gave him bouquets of white and yellow flowers.
“It’s like hugging a relative. I told him that I want my mother to return, and he said he will pray for it. I am so happy,” said 10-year-old Mark Angelo Balberos, one of the children, showing off the rosary Francis gave him.
“I want to become a priest one day,” Balberos added.
The 78-year-old pontiff will bring a message of compassion to millions of poor Filipinos suffering from the effects of corruption and decades-old insurgencies.
He will visit the central province of Leyte, which is still struggling to recover from Typhoon Haiyan that killed 6,300 people in 2013. About two million people are expected to attend an open-air mass on Saturday at Tacloban City airport, almost completely destroyed by Haiyan.
In Manila, around six million people are expected to hear Francis say Mass at Rizal park, the largest in the capital, on Sunday, likely exceeding the record crowd of 5 million during Pope John Paul II’s 1995 World Youth Day Mass.
The government has declared a three-day public holiday to clear traffic in Manila, a city of 12 million people, and has even closed financial markets.
Additional reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Jeremy Laurence