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Pope Francis hoping to visit Hiroshima, Nagasaki around end of 2019

Pope Francis blows a candle atop of a cake he was offered on the eve of his 82nd birthday during audience with children and family from the dispensary of Santa Marta, a Vatican charity that offers special help to mothers and children in need, in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, on Dec. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME (Kyodo) -- Pope Francis has expressed his desire to visit Japan, including the atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, around the end of next year, the Japanese cardinal said Monday.

    If the plan is realized, he will become the first pope to travel to Japan since John Paul II visited the two cities in 1981.

    Japan's Cardinal Manyo Maeda, who met with Pope Francis at the Vatican earlier in the day, said the pope during his trip is expected to offer prayers for the victims of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 in World War II.

    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked the pope to visit the country when they held talks at the Vatican in 2014.

    In September this year, Pope Francis expressed his desire to visit Japan next year when he met with a delegation of a private group from Miyazaki Prefecture.

    The mayors of Hiroshima in western Japan and Nagasaki in southwestern Japan as well as the governor of Hiroshima Prefecture also asked for the pope to visit when they attended his public weekly audiences.

    The pope responded by sending letters in which he promised to offer prayers for the citizens of the two cities, according to the local governments. The letters, dated in May, did not mention a potential visit.

    Maeda, a native of the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture and whose mother survived the Nagasaki bombing, became the cardinal of Japan in June. He is the sixth Japanese cardinal and follows his predecessor Fumio Hamao, who died in 2007.

    Although the population of Catholics in Japan is small at around 400,000, or 0.3 percent of the national population, the country has a history with the Catholic Church stretching over centuries since Jesuit Francis Xavier landed in southwestern Japan in 1549.

    This past summer, a dozen southwestern Japanese sites in Nagasaki and Kumamoto prefectures, which are linked to persecuted Christians, were added to U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Heritage list.

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