By Philip Pullella and Kay Johnson
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Pope Francis condemned on Thursday 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 that must be uprooted.
Francis, on the first full day of his visit to mainly Buddhist Thailand, led a Mass in Bangkok’s National Stadium for tens of thousands of exuberant Roman Catholics in a country where they make up less than one percent of the population.
“For us, it is as if God himself is here,” said Nutaporn Kwanmuang, 27, who attended the Mass, the largest gathering of Catholics since Pope John Paul II visited in 1984. Tens of thousands of others watched on screens in an adjacent stadium.
In his homily, Francis mentioned the exploitation of women and children and the plight of refugees and migrants for the second time in one day.
“Here I think of children and women who are victims of prostitution and human trafficking, humiliated in their essential human dignity,” said the 82-year-old pope, who looked tired at the end of a long day.
Thailand, which attracts some 35 million tourists a year, has sought to shed its reputation for sex tourism. But repeated crackdowns have not rid Bangkok and other tourist hubs of go-go bars and massage parlours that often offer sex.
There are around 123,530 sex workers in Thailand, according to a 2014 UNAIDS report.
Earlier, in his first address on Thursday, Francis expressed appreciation for the Thai government’s efforts “to extirpate this scourge, and for all those private individuals and organisations working to uproot this evil and to provide ways to restore their (victims’) dignity”.
At both venues, he defending migrants and refugees and condemned human trafficking.
The number of human trafficking victims rescued in Thailand is set to hit a record high this year. Demand for cheap labour in neighbouring Malaysia has caused a jump in the illegal trade, according to government data.
Thailand is home to some of Asia’s oldest refugee camps.
About 100,000 refugees from Myanmar have been living in nine camps along the border for decades, many since the early 1980s.
More recently, Thailand has been a major venue for human smugglers and traffickers of tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya who have fled crackdowns in Myanmar.
In a gesture of inter-religious dialogue, Francis on Thursday morning visited the gilded Wat Ratchabophit Sathit Maha Simaram Temple to pay his respects to Thailand’s Supreme Buddhist Patriarch, the 91-year-old Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong.
Thailand’s Catholics number around 380,000 in a country of more than 65 million, but the small community has thrived and relations with the Buddhists are generally good.
Francis, who is accused by ultra-conservative Catholics of being too accommodating to other religions, praised the effects he said Buddhism has had on Thais.
“The majority of Thais have drunk deeply from the sources of Buddhism, which have imbued their way of venerating life and their ancestors, and leading a sober lifestyle based on contemplation, detachment, hard work and discipline,” Francis told the patriarch.
Francis leaves for Japan on Saturday.
(Writing by Philip Pullella and Kay Johnson; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Gareth Jones)