SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The relatives of some of the more than 300 people killed in an April ferry sinking are hoping Pope Francis' visit to South Korea will provide both solace for their anger and grief — and a boost in their struggle against the government.
Most of the people killed when the ferry Sewol sank were high school students on a class trip, and their relatives are pushing reluctant lawmakers to pass a special law that would set up an independent, transparent probe of the cause of the sinking. The ruling party is opposed to giving a new investigative committee the power to indict, saying it could shake up the judicial system.
The families also hope the pope's visit will illuminate what they see as South Korea's tendency to put financial interests ahead of human life. Prosecutors have found that the ferry's operator habitually overloaded the ship with cargo to make money and that the ferry owner spent little on safety training for the crew.
Park Youn-oh, the father of a 17-year-old student killed in the sinking, said he was overwhelmed when he saw the pope's plane Thursday and briefly met the pontiff.
His son, Seong-ho, a Roman Catholic who had been preparing to attend a seminary and become a priest, often quoted the pope on Facebook.
"I thought of my dead son and the other poor people who were left for dead," he said. "I felt good about seeing (Francis) but also sad and eager to rely on him for consolation."
Park told The Associated Press by phone that the pope held his hand and said "he would surely remember the ferry victims." He was hopeful the pope would raise the issue with President Park Geun-hye.
Seong-ho's sister, Park Bona, 20, said earlier that her brother had been excited to attend the pope's Mass in South Korea. "He revered the pope and wanted to be like him."
"We are having a tough time" because of online attacks on victims' relatives and a stalemate in parliament over calls to probe the tragedy. The pope's "visit will be a consolation in this tough situation."
The public is divided over the special law, and some have accused the relatives of trying to make money from the tragedy and hurled abuse against them.
Ten relatives of the victims plan to meet with the pope privately on Friday after Mass in the city of Daejeon.
A frail, bearded relative who has staged a hunger strike — eating nothing but salt and water for the past month — said that he and others want Francis' help pressuring the government to allow the special law.
"I heard that Pope Francis cares for the people who hurt the most and values peace and human rights," Kim Young-oh, who lost his teenage daughter, told reporters Wednesday. "Please remember us. I lost my daughter who is more precious to me than my own life."