VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict reached out to communist China on Wednesday at an unprecedented concert by its national orchestra in the Vatican that the Church hopes can help end decades of icy relations with Beijing.
The China Philharmonic Orchestra played Mozart's "Requiem" and Chinese folk songs along with the Shanghai Opera House Chorus in the Vatican's packed audience hall.
The German pope appeared happy at the concert of European religious music by the orchestra of an officially atheist state that has ridiculed the papacy in the past.
In his address at the end of the first part of the concert, the pope was full of praise for the Chinese people and held out the hope that music could succeed where diplomacy has failed.
"Music, and art in general, can serve as a privileged instrument for encounter and reciprocal knowledge and esteem between different populations and cultures...," said the pope, who also managed a few words of thanks in Chinese.
Some diplomats say the long-term result of the unique concert could be similar to the so-called "ping-pong" diplomacy of the 1970, when the exchange of sports teams led to relations between Washington and Beijing.
Benedict has made improving relations with Beijing a major goal of his pontificate. He issued an open letter in June saying he sought to restore full diplomatic ties with China that were severed two years after the 1949 Communist takeover.
Catholics in China are split between those who belong to a state-backed Church and an underground Church whose members are loyal to the Vatican and it was to these steadfast faithful that the Pope sent a particular message.
"In greeting you this evening, dear Chinese artists, the pope intends to reach out to your entire people, with a special thought for those of your fellow citizens who share faith in Jesus and are united through a particular spiritual bond with the Successor of Peter," he said.
In what appeared to be a message to China's leaders that they had nothing to fear by better relations, the pope said the Vatican was a place "where people from all over the world often meet, with their own personal stories and their own culture, all of them welcomed with esteem and affection."
Relations between the Vatican and Beijing have hit low points several times in recent years as the Vatican criticized China for appointing bishops without papal approval.
A main sticking point is the Vatican's relations with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. China wants the Vatican to cut the ties.
In his address to the pope, conductor Yu Long called the night "a glorious moment" of historical significance.
In an interview with Reuters before the concert, Yu saw parallels between the performance and the New York Philharmonic's ice-breaking concert in North Korea in February.
The pope said religious sentiment, like music "transcends the boundaries of every individual culture." He sent his regards to all Chinese people "as they prepare for the Olympic games, an event of great importance for the entire human family."
Church sources said before the concert that the Chinese were clearly "shopping for good will" in an effort to improve China's international image, tarnished by recent unrest in Tibet and disruptions of the international leg of the Olympic torch relay.
"I don't think they (the communist government) are doing it out of love for the pope or love of the Holy See but it will be positive in the end," said one Vatican source familiar with the situation.
Editing by Matthew Jones