Pope's South Korea trip gives opportunity to reach out to China

Tue Aug 12, 2014 6:11pm EDT
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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - On his way to South Korea, Pope Francis will get a rare opportunity to directly address China's leadership as he flies over the country, whose communist government does not allow Catholics to recognize his authority.

The pope, who leaves Rome on Wednesday, always sends telegrams to the leaders of countries as he passes through their airspace. The routine messages rarely make news, but this time there is keen expectation for what the pope will say to China.

The fact that he is being allowed to cross Chinese airspace at all - Pope John Paul II had to skirt it in his tours of Asia - is seen as a positive, if small, step forward, in the often-fraught relations between the Vatican and China.

"This is a sign of detente, for sure," said Father Bernardo Cevellera, head of the Rome-based AsiaNews agency and a specialist in the Catholic Church in China. "But the real miracle would be if (Chinese President) Xi Jinping responds with his own telegram, and what he says".

The Vatican has had no formal relations with China since shortly after the Communist party took power in 1949. The Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities: an "official" Church known as the "Patriotic Association" answerable to the party, and an underground Church that swears allegiance only to the pope in Rome. The most contentious issue between them is which side gets to name bishops.

"The Holy See favors a respectful and constructive dialogue with authorities to find a solution to the problems that limit the complete practising of the faith by Catholics and to guarantee an atmosphere of real religious freedom," the Vatican's number two, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told an Italian Catholic magazine.

The Vatican has been sending olive branches to China for decades, but a major stumbling block is the Holy See's continued recognition of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.


Labourers install a giant cross in front of Gwanghwamun, main gate of the royal Gyeongbok Palace, ahead of Pope Francis' visit in central Seoul August 12, 2014.   REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji