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TOKYO — In the first visit to Japan by a pontiff in 38 years, Pope Francis on Monday edged close to calling for the renunciation of all nuclear power in a country that experienced the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl but has yet to determine a viable alternative for its energy needs.
A day after traveling to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the only places where atomic bombs have ever been used in war, the pope met in Tokyo on Monday with victims of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that ravaged northeastern Japan.
Francis noted that the Catholic bishops of Japan had called for the shutdown of all nuclear plants in Japan after the 2011 disaster, in which waves from the tsunami overpowered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and set off catastrophic meltdowns in two reactors.
“As we think about the future of our common home, we need to realize that we cannot make purely selfish decisions,” the pope said Monday, “and that we have a great responsibility to future generations.”
Although Japan has a tiny and shrinking Catholic population, the pope drew thousands of people to his appearances in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where he called for an end to the nuclear arms race.
In denouncing any use of atomic weapons as “a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home,” he appeared to go further than his predecessors, who called for an end to stockpiling nuclear arms.
“The arms race wastes precious resources that could be better used to benefit the integral development of peoples and to protect the natural environment,” the pope said in an address in Peace Park in Nagasaki, which commemorates the 74,000 people who died in the atomic bombing on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, which killed 140,000 people.
“In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and sale of ever more destructive weapons are an affront crying out to heaven,” he added.
Nagasaki, a port city that first had contact with European explorers in the 1500s, is the center of Catholic life in Japan, although the observant population in the country has fallen to just over 450,000, a tiny minority in a nation of 126 million people. The vast majority of religious Japanese are either Buddhist or Shinto, with many practicing elements of both.
Catholics have a history of being ostracized for their faith in Japan, and 26 Christians who were executed in the late 16th century under orders from the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi are commemorated in a monument in Nagasaki.
When U.S. pilots dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, it destroyed Urakami Cathedral, then the largest cathedral in East Asia, and killed about 8,000 Catholics in the area.
The last pope to visit Japan, John Paul II in 1981, also visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where he warned of the dangers of nuclear power and said the suffering from the atomic bombings persisted.
On Monday, Francis also addressed the deterioration of international ties at a time when populist governments and leaders have taken to looking inward.
“We are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism, which is all the more serious in light of the growth of new forms of military technology,” he said in Nagasaki. “Such an approach seems highly incongruous in today’s context of interconnectedness; it represents a situation that urgently calls for the attention and commitment of all leaders.”
In Tokyo on Monday, the pope met with the newly enthroned emperor, Naruhito, and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Before an audience of about 50,000 people, he said Mass at the Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants baseball team.
He described what he called the disconnectedness of a group of young people he had met at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo.
“They remain on the margins, unable to grasp the meaning of life and their own existence,” he said. “Increasingly, the home, school and community, which are meant to be places where we support and help one another, are being eroded by excessive competition in the pursuit of profit and efficiency. Many people feel confused and anxious; they are overwhelmed by so many demands and worries that take away their peace and stability.”