Pope Francis calls for peace on Korean peninsula
Pontiff also sends message of goodwill to China as he wraps up five day visit to region
Pope Francis attends a Mass for peace at Myeong-dong cathedral in Seoul, South Korea today. The five-day trip was the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. Photograph: Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea via Getty Images.
Pope Francis has called for peace and reconciliation on the divided Korean peninsula and sent a further message of goodwill to China, wrapping-up a five day trip to South Korea and the first papal visit to Asia in 15 years.
Before a Mass this morning at Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral, the pope prayed with a small number of “comfort women”, who were forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers occupying the country before and during the second World War.
“Today’s Mass is first and foremost a prayer for reconciliation in this Korean family,” he said, following up on an impromptu prayer on Friday when he urged Koreans to work to unite as one family, “with no victors or vanquished”.
The 1950-1953 Korean war ended in an armed truce that leaves North Korea and South Korea in a technical state of war.
A group of defectors from North Korea and relatives of South Koreans abducted by the North were invited to the mass, which was attended by South Korean president Park Geun-hye.
North Korea turned down an invitation from the South Korean Catholic church for members of its state-run Korean Catholic Association to attend today’s Mass, citing the start of joint US-South Korean military drills, also due to begin this morning.
“Let us pray ... for the emergence of new opportunities for dialogue, encounter and the resolution of differences, for continued generosity in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and for an ever greater recognition that all Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people,” the pope said.
Near the conclusion of the Mass, a choir sang, “Our wish is unification.”
As the pope’s plane entered Chinese airspace on its return flight to Rome, he sent a telegram to Chinese president Xi Jinping, following up an unprecedented message sent during his flight to South Korea on Thursday.
“Returning to Rome after my visit to Korea, I wish to renew to your excellency and your fellow citizens the assurance of my best wishes, as I invoke divine blessings upon your land,” the pope’s telegram said.
While it is tradition for the pope to send a message to countries he’s flying over, the Vatican and Beijing have long had fraught relations, and his predecessor, John Paul II, had to avoid Chinese airspace during an Asia trip.
The pope yesterday said Asian governments should not fear Christians, as they did not want to “come as conquerors” but be integral parts of local cultures. The remarks were intended for communist-ruled countries such as China, North Korea and Vietnam.
The Catholic Church in China is divided into 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.
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. In its statement, it did not address the issue of Chinese barred from attending a youth event in South Korea.
About half of more than 100 Chinese who had planned to attend yesterday’s Asian Youth Day event were unable to do so due to “a complicated situation inside China”, an official with the local organiser of the pope’s visit told reporters on Thursday.
The pope, met by festive crowds, spoke several times during his trip about inequality, which has been a theme of his papacy since being elected in March 2013.
South Korea is among the world’s wealthiest countries, but is increasingly unequal, with nearly half its elderly living in poverty. South Korea has also seen rapid growth in the Catholic Church, which has doubled in the past 25 years to about 11 per cent of the population of 50 million, adding some 100,000 new members each year.