We ‘do not come as conquerors’, pope tells communist Asian states

Francis seeking to improve relations with China during visit to region

Pope Francis at the celebration of a Mass on the occasion of the closing of the 6th Asian Youth Day in Haemi-myeon, South Korea, yesterday. The pontiff led the beatification ceremony of 124 Korean martyrs. Photograph: Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA.

Pope Francis at the celebration of a Mass on the occasion of the closing of the 6th Asian Youth Day in Haemi-myeon, South Korea, yesterday. The pontiff led the beatification ceremony of 124 Korean martyrs. Photograph: Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA.

Mon, Aug 18, 2014, 01:00

In words that will resonate in several Asian countries, including China, North Korea and Vietnam, Pope Francis yesterday reached out to communist nations in the region, saying Christians did not “come as conquerors”.

“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,” he told 70 bishops from 35 Asian countries gathered in Haeme, south of the Korean capital Seoul, on the penultimate day of his five-day visit.

There are five million Catholics in South Korea, and this is the first trip by a pontiff to Asia since 1999. The message will have resonated strongly with Catholics in China, which Francis blessed while flying over the country on Thursday, telling President Xi Jinping he was praying for peace and wellbeing for all Chinese people.

China has had no formal relations since shortly after the Communist Party took power after a revolution in 1949. It was the first time the pontiff had been allowed to fly over China; previously tensions between Beijing and the Holy See had prevented this happening.

‘Readiness to engage’

“It’s an offer, an openness, a readiness to engage in dialogue for the wellbeing of the Church and the people in these different lands,” Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi told reporters.

“Good Catholics can also be good citizens. The authorities do not have to fear the Holy See as something that exercises power in their land. It is religious.”

China’s foreign ministry noted the pope’s position, and repeated its position that Beijing was sincere about wanting to improve relations.

To worship openly in China, Catholics are required to join the official China Patriotic Catholic Association, which has five million members. Tensions repeatedly surface with Rome because the state-directed organisation insists on naming bishops without Vatican approval.

Many Catholics worship in “underground” churches, and there are thought to be about 10 million Catholics in China.

Beijing does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, which still recognises Taiwan, considered by Beijing to be a renegade province. Derecognition of Taiwan is said to be a major bargaining chip in the Holy See’s efforts to improve relations.

North Korea

The pope’s remarks will also have implications for North Korea, which appeared to mark his visit by test-firing a rocket.

Authorities in Pyongyang insisted the rocket tests had nothing to do with the papal visit, and demanded the South Koreans “stop pointing fingers”.

North Korea also has a state-sponsored Catholic church, called the Korean Catholic Association, but it refused an invitation to attend a papal mass today day in Seoul, citing as a reason joint US-South Korean military drills, which are due to begin today.

During his visit, the pope attended the Sixth Asian Youth Day in Dangjin and he beatified 124 Korean martyrs. –(Additional reporting by Reuters)