Seoul — As Pope John Paul II arrives for his historic visit to South Korea today, people of many creeds and beliefs are looking forward to welcoming him. For the Polish-born Pope, who will be here through Sunday, has selected their country as the centerpiece of his second pilgrimage to the Asia-Pacific region. And, in addition, the professional elite of this nation of 40 million people consists largely of educated Christians.
In terms of their national history, Koreans often compare themselves to Poles , with their fierce nationalistic sentiments fed by centuries of suffering at the hands of aggressive neighboring powers.
The Pope's special Alitalia plane will take the same route to Seoul that Korean Air Lines Flight 7 would have taken last September had it not strayed into Soviet airspace and been shot down. During the flight, the Pope will hold a special mass for the 269 victims, as well as for those who died in the Rangoon, Burma, bombing a month later. In that attack, several South Korean Cabinet ministers were killed.
Such gestures mean a great deal to the basically anticommunist South Koreans, regardless of their religion.
The religious highlight of his visit here is expected to be the canonizing of 103 martyrs (10 French missionaries and 93 native converts) - the largest mass canonization in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and the first of its kind outside the Vatican in modern times.
The Roman Catholic Church has contributed greatly to Korea's ''Western learning,'' despite the government's initial persecution of native Catholics. South Korea boasts some 1.7 million Catholic converts, 5,000 priests, and 600 churches. The church runs some 60 colleges and schools and 70 social and medical institutions.
South Korea has the largest Protestant population in Asia, with more than 6 million followers and some 20,000 native clergy. Unlike other Asian countries, which tend to tolerate or encourage only their own national religions, South Korea is tolerant of all faiths and beliefs.
The first South Korean government was led by Syngman Rhee, a Princeton-educated Methodist, and the second regime by John M. Chang, a prominent Catholic intellectual.
Both Catholicism and Protestantism are growing fast among the poor in cities as well as in the countryside. For instance, textile workers eager to improve their working conditions are drawn to the Protestant Urban Mission, an activist group designed to protect their rights. The Catholic Farmers Association has a similar mission: to organize farmers to ''defend their interests.''
Despite the government's attempts to clamp down on what it considers the more extreme movements, the number of Christian converts is increasing. And the mere fact that such ''dissident elements'' do exist in South Korea - unlike in North Korea, where any expression of Christianity is absolutely forbidden - is seen by many South Koreans as prove that they enjoy freedom of worship, Christian or otherwise.
Just over 13.3 percent of the people in Seoul, and 15.8 percent elsewhere in the country, are Christians.
Christianity was introduced to the predominantly Buddhist-Confucian intellectual community at the turn of the century. Having long been tormented by the factional strife and corruption among the Confucian hierarchy, many reform-minded scholars were responsive to fresh ideas and ideals from the West.
Many of them remained die-hard Confucianists. But in 1894, Yi Sung-Hun was baptized by an Italian missionary in Peking while on a diplomatic mission. His return to Korea that year marked the birth of the Korean Catholic movement.
With the opening of the Hermit Kingdom to the West in 1882, missionaries of various denominations began streaming into Korea, resulting in the indiscriminate dissemination of different faiths among those Koreans eager for new beliefs and values from abroad.