Pope John Paul II embarked Tuesday on the longest trip of his eight-year papacy, a journey that will take him from Bangladesh through the South Pacific to Australia.
A special Alitalia Boeing 747 carrying the Polish-born pontiff and his entourage took off from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport at 6:06 p.m. Rome time, 20 minutes behind schedule, for the nine-hour, 15-minute flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The Pope set a punishing pace for his 30,000-mile, two-week journey.
After a night cat-napping aboard his jumbo jet, the pontiff was to land in the Bangladeshi capital early today and put in a 12-hour day of public appearances.
So tight is the schedule that the Pope and his entourage will spend two of their first three nights on the jet instead of bedding down in hotels or seminaries.
John Paul, on his 32nd foreign trip since becoming Pope in 1978, also will visit Singapore, the Fiji Islands and New Zealand before spending a week traveling across Australia. He will make a brief stopover in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean before returning to Rome on the night of Dec. 1.
Nine Time Zones
The pontiff will pass through nine different time zones during the tour, five in Australia alone.
L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily, said the 66-year-old pontiff will deliver a message of hope to the people "with a thirst for justice, peace and universal brotherhood."
Roman Catholics are a minority at most of the stops on the trip. A Vatican official said the Pope will emphasize the Catholic identity of his flock while at the same time "stimulating dialogue with other faiths."
There are an estimated 180,000 Catholics and 100,000 Protestants in Bangladesh, which has a population of 103 million.
Flags, Welcome Banners
Dhaka was festooned with Vatican flags and welcome banners on Tuesday.
More than 12,000 Catholic pilgrims are being housed in church-run camps in Dhaka, and it is expected that 50,000 people will attend a Mass to be conducted by the Pope in the Ershad Army Stadium.
Despite the festivity for the Pope's arrival, some Muslim spokesman have criticized Christian missionaries, in apparent reference to his visit.
The Bengali-language newspaper Inquilab (Liberty) in Dhaka charged Monday that Christian missionaries are exploiting the poverty of Bangladeshis.
Inquilab, published by the country's minister of religious affairs, also said in a front-page editorial, "All religions must be on guard against the ominous activities of Christian missionaries, who exploit the poor and the illiterate in the name of serving humanity."
Mohammadullah Hafezi Hujur, president of the Muslim fundamentalist Khilafat movement, issued a statement Monday saying, "Islam provides freedom to all religions, but this does not mean they will brook the proselytizing activity of Christian missionaries."
The Pope will spend a day in Bangladesh, celebrating Mass at the Ershad stadium, ordaining 18 priests and meeting leaders of various religions.
He then goes to Singapore for a five-hour stop followed by an overnight flight to New Zealand.
The pontiff's conservative doctrine is widely attacked in New Zealand, where an estimated 70% of all Catholics ignore Vatican teaching on birth control. The system of Catholic schools, a backbone of the local church, is facing a crisis of faith among pupils.
From New Zealand, John Paul will fly Nov. 24 to Australia, where about a quarter of the country's 15 million people are Catholics.
However, regular Mass attendance is down by about 50% in Australia, and the number of priests has dropped sharply. There are strong demands for both married and women priests, ideas repeatedly rejected by the Pope.
Church members widely ignore church teachings banning divorce and artificial contraception. John Paul will cover 6,000 miles in Australia in 6 1/2 days, fulfilling a request by by local church officials that he visit each of the vast country's states and territories.
His final stop will be the Seychelles, the tiny group of mainly Christian islands in the Indian Ocean, where he will conduct Mass.