BANGKOK — Not everyone cheering at Pope Francis while he left a historic Buddhist temple in Bangkok on Thursday morning is Catholic.
Public school teacher Banchaporn Boonlert-aree, 34, is a Buddhist. But he looks as excited as others, if not more, as he waits for Pope Francis to reemerge out of Ratchabophit Temple after holding an interfaith dialogue with the spiritual leader of Thai Buddhism.
“I learned that the papacy played a vital role since the Middle Age in Europe. It is a very important position and we learn in the textbooks,” Banchaporn explained.
Another Thai waiting among the crowd is a Hindu.
Wannasin Srisaket, 21, is a fourth year history student at the nearby Silpakorn University. He accompanied his Catholic friend to catch a glimpse of the Pope because it’s a rare occasion, possibly once in a lifetime.
He believes that Christianity is a good religion and it teaches people to love others.
“I also want to see how the head of the Catholic Church looks like in flesh,” Wannasin said.
Inside the temple, Pope Francis invited the Supreme Patriarch and Thailand’s Buddhists to work together with Christians for the poor and the environment.
Some Catholics interviewed today acknowledge there’s still a large gap of mutual understanding between the two faiths. Thai public schools tend to teach only Buddhism, while Catholic private schools don’t offer lessons about Christianity to its Buddhist students.
Noppawit Chatarasophon, 27, a Catholic and government official at Human Development Ministry, said that he learned nothing about Christianity and other major religion when he was a student at the prestigious Suan Kularb Wittayalai School in Bangkok.
“I only learned about Buddhism. There should be teachings about other religions as well,” Noppawit said.
While Noppawit said relations between Buddhists and Christians are generally good and peaceful, he complained of some bias among Thai Buddhists who make up over 93 percent of the population.
“Some have bias about [the existence of] God. It’s a belief and we should not infringe on one another,” Nappawit, who converted from Buddhism to Catholicism 10 years ago said.
Father Joseph Anucha Chaiyadej, director of mass media center of Catholic Bishop Conference of Thailand, said Catholic schools don’t want to force Buddhist students or students of other faith to learn about Catholicism.
“The schools teach students of various faiths to be a good follower of his or her faith,” Father Joseph said, “To proselytize aggressively is a double-edge sword. We do not resort to a hardcore method although we do not bar [Buddhist] students who may be interested.”
Even without formal lessons on Christianity, Father Joseph said, Thai Buddhist students at Catholic schools can still become familiar with the faith by learning about the deeper meaning of religious days like Christmas, which are typically celebrated in these schools.
Yotsathon Hantaweewattana, 33, is another Catholic waiting to greet the Pope outside the temple. A freelance researcher, Yotsathon said besides learning more about other religions, some Thais should also work together between different faiths for the greater good.
“We should talk about the strength of each religion and promote the common good and work such as helping refugees as all religions teach people to do good,” he said, wearing a white T-shirt with the image of the pope.