Pope Francis baptizes Lee Ho-Jin, the father of one of hundreds of high school students killed in South Korea's Sewol ferry disaster in April, in Seoul on Sunday. Pool photo/Osservatore Romano/Agence France-Presse
HAEMI, South Korea -- Pope Francis on Sunday extended an olive branch to China, urging the Communist Party-ruled nation which has fraught relations with the Vatican to pursue a formal dialogue to benefit both sides.
On the fourth and next-to-final day of his trip to South Korea, Francis flew by helicopter to Haemi, southwest of Seoul, to address bishops from Asian countries and celebrate a Mass closing an gathering of Asian Catholic youth.
In his address to some 70 bishops from 35 Asian countries, Francis said the Church was committed to dialogue with everyone and added: "In this spirit of openness to others, I earnestly hope that those countries of your continent with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship, may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all."
This was a clear reference to China, a nation with which the Vatican has had no formal relations 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 Communist Party, and an underground Church that swears allegiance only to the pope in Rome.
The pope told the bishops that while Catholicism was a "small flock" in Asia, the Church was "nonetheless charged to bring the light of the Gospel to the ends of the earth."
When Francis traveled from Rome to Seoul on Thursday, his plane was allowed to cross Chinese air space. It was the first time a pope had been allowed to fly over China on Asian tours. His predecessor John Paul II had to avoid Chinese airspace.
During his flight, Francis sent an unprecedented message of goodwill to China, where the Church is keen to establish a greater presence, telling President Xi Jinping he was praying for peace and well-being for all Chinese people.
The pope's remarks on Sunday could also apply to isolated North Korea, where religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed provided it does not undermine the state, but outside of a small handful of government-controlled places of worship, no open religious activity is allowed.
North Korea turned down an invitation from the South Korean Catholic church for members of its state-run Korean Catholic Association to attend a papal mass on Monday in Seoul, citing joint U.S.-South Korean military drills due to begin the same day.
The Vatican's dialogue with Vietnam is at an advanced stage and the two are expected to forge diplomatic relations in coming years.
China 'noted' his position
China's Foreign Ministry on Thursday said it had "noted" the Pope's position, and repeated its position that Beijing was sincere about wanting to improve relations with the Vatican.
"We are willing to keep working hard with the Vatican to carry out constructive dialogue and push for the improvement of bilateral ties," the ministry said in a statement faxed to Reuters.
In its statement, Beijing did not address the issue of Chinese barred from attending the youth event.
About half of more than 100 Chinese who had planned to attend Sunday's Asian Youth Day event were unable to do so due to "a complicated situation inside China," an official with the local organizer of the pope's visit told reporters on Thursday.
A group of about 15 people, most of whom appeared to be in their teens or early 20s, were seen at a papal event on Friday wearing red t-shirts that said in Chinese, "The Sixth Asian Youth Day. Delegation of China."
Members of the group declined to speak to a journalist, although one of them said they were from Hebei province, a Catholic stronghold.
The main point of contention between Beijing and the Vatican is which side should have the final say in the appointment of bishops.
The Vatican has been sending olive branches to China for years, but a major stumbling block is the Holy See's continued recognition of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
Before leaving Seoul for Haemi, the pope fulfilled a promise he made the day after he arrived - to baptize the father of a victim of the Sewol ferry disaster, in which more than 300 people, most of them school children, were killed in April.
Lee Ho-Jin had been preparing to convert and asked the pope to perform the rite himself. It was carried out in the chapel of the Vatican embassy in Seoul on Sunday morning, a spokesman said. Lee decided to take the name Francis as his Christian name in honour of the pope, a spokesman said.