POPE Francis has arrived in the Philippines, Asia’s most populous Catholic nation, where ecstatic crowds awaited the first papal visit in 20 years.

The leader of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics waved to the crowd as he disembarked at 5:32 p.m. yesterday from Sri Lankan Airbus 340, which brought him from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where he had a three-day visit.

President Benigno Aquino III, senior government officials and church leaders, met Pope Francis as he deplaned at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City for the second leg of his weeklong Asian trip.

Some 1,200 Filipino young people from Catholic schools and parishes danced to welcome Francis on the tarmac of the military base.

Flying cap

Seconds after Pope Francis appeared at the top of the Sri Lankan jet’s steps, as the crowd noise swelled, a gust of wind abruptly kicked up and blew his papal skullcap.

The pontiff grabbed at his hat—a futile effort, since it was already long airborne—then smiled and descended the steps into the Philippines, heading toward the TV camera, hatless.

A welcome ceremony was immediately conducted at the airport’s tarmac as church bells tolled across the country to welcome the Pope.  

From Villamor Air Base, Pope Francis rode the popemobile and started his 12-kilometer journey to the Apostolic Nunciature, the de facto Vatican embassy, where he will stay.

He arrived at the gates of the Apostolic Nunciature in Quirino Avenue at 6:56 p.m.

Hours before the Pope arrived in Manila, 60-year-old Precy Asistio was staking out a place yesterday morning near the Apostolic Nunciature, where he will be staying, to try to see him when he arrives.

“We’re waiting for Pope Francis so we can be blessed somehow. Even with just a wave, that’s OK for us.”

The Pope is in the Philippines, the largest Roman Catholic country in Asia and third largest in the world, for a five-day apostolic visit.

Manila sked

Several activities are lined up for Pope Francis in Manila, including masses at Manila Cathedral and Rizal Park, a meeting of families and youth, and a meeting with President Aquino in Malacañang.

Social activists in Manila held ecumenical prayers for the poor, urging Pope Francis to be a champion of downtrodden Filipinos.

They set up a makeshift altar in front of a statue of working-man national hero Andres Bonifacio. A large banner in the background read: “Welcome Pope Francis! Hear the cry of the poor and oppressed. Stand with us for justice and peace.”

Roman Catholic priest the Rev. Ben Alforque said poor Filipinos include landless peasants, underpaid workers, homeless children, indigenous tribes and political prisoners.

“The church of the poor is in the heart of Pope Francis,” he said.

Members of a youth group later unveiled a large banner from a bridge with the image of Pope Francis shoulder to shoulder with a farm laborer, a worker, a youth, student and a member of an indigenous community.

Einstein Recedes, spokesman for the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines, said the image shows the pope in solidarity with the poor and “doesn’t gloss over the plight of the Filipino people.”

Leyte sked

Pope Francis will be in Tacloban in Leyte tomorrow to comfort survivors of the devastating November 2013 Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing.

The government has declared national holidays during the Pope’s visit, which runs until Monday.

Authorities have expressed major concerns over the pope’s security in the Philippines, where attempts were made to kill visiting pontiffs twice before.

Nearly 40,000 soldiers and police are being deployed to protect Francis in what Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang described as a “security nightmare”.

Potential stampedes from the giant crowds, as well as the threat of Islamic militants or lone-wolf assailants are among the concerns.

Assassination try

On the first papal visit to the Philippines in 1970, Bolivian painter Benjamin Mendoza donned a fake priest’s cassock and swung a knife at Pope Paul VI as he arrived at the Manila airport.

Paul VI was wounded but continued his trip without disclosing his injury.

One week before John Paul II’s 1995 visit, police uncovered a plot by foreign Islamist extremists to kill him by bombing his Manila motorcade route.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino made a nationally televised address this week specifically to highlight the security threats for the pope and call on all Filipinos to help protect him.

“I ask you, do you want history to record that a tragedy involving the pope happened in the Philippines,” Aquino said.

Adding to the concerns, the 78-year-old pontiff has insisted he will not travel in a bullet-proof popemobile during his big events so he can be closer to the faithful. (ABC/With AP/Sunnex)