Pope prays for Sewol ferry victims, meets bereaved family members

DAEJEON, Aug. 15 (Yonhap) -- Pope Francis prayed for those who lost their lives in the Sewol ferry sinking that claimed about 300 lives and met with representatives of the survivors and bereaved families on Friday, the second day of his South Korean trip.

"May the Lord welcome the dead into his peace, console those who mourn, and continue to sustain those who so generously came to the aid of their brothers and sisters," he said of the ferry accident in his English-language Angelus prayer at a stadium in this central city of Daejeon.

"May this tragic event, which has brought all Koreans together in grief, confirm their commitment to work together in solidarity for the common good."

The 6,825-ton Sewol ferry capsized off southwestern South Korea on April 16 after making a sharp turn. So far, 294 people, mostly high school students, have been found dead, with 10 missing and presumed dead.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church gave the prayer shortly after the Mass of the Assumption of Mary, a major Catholic event that commemorates the Virgin Mary's ascension into heaven.

The pope had a few minutes before the Mass to meet and comfort 10 representatives of the survivors and grieving families of the victims.

The Mass at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium, packed with some 50,000 followers as well as nonbelievers, marked the pope's first public appearance since he arrived in South Korea on Thursday for a five-day trip.

The service also coincided with Liberation Day, a national holiday in which the country will celebrate the 69th anniversary of its 1945 liberation from Japanese colonialists.

Francis is slated to return to Seoul in the evening to prepare for Saturday morning's beatification ceremony of 124 Korean Catholic martyrs who will be blessed for their sacrifice in upholding the Catholic faith in a country formerly ruled under Confucian ideals.

About 600 family members of the Sewol victims are expected to attend the papal Mass at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, according to organizers.

"The authorities decided to accept the families' request to allow some 600 of their members to attend the beatification ceremony," Hur Young-yup, spokesman for the government-civilian Committee for the Papal Visit to Korea, told reporters.

Some of the family members and their supporters are camping out at the square, often used as a ceremonial plaza in downtown Seoul, demanding the early parliamentary passage of a special bill aimed at unearthing the truth about the cause of the ferry accident that claimed about 300 lives.

Negotiations have been under way between the families and the authorities about the removal of their protest tents because the plaza is the venue of the open-air Mass that the authorities estimate could draw as many as 1 million people, including 170,000 invited Catholics.

"The families agreed to leave only two tents and remove the rest while they take part in the beatification ceremony," Hur said, adding that more details will be fixed later.

Last week, rival political parties agreed to adopt a bill that would create a parliamentary fact-finding team on the ferry sinking that would include members of the families but have no legal powers to investigate and indict those responsible.

The parties, however, failed to pass the bill through the parliament as planned on Wednesday as it faced strong public criticism and protests from the families of the ferry victims. The main opposition party now insists on a renegotiation of the deal.

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