Pope Francis ends South Korean visit with message of peace

Pontiff prays with former 'comfort women' while calling for reconciliation on divided peninsula, and reaches out to Beijing again

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 9:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 9:38pm

Pope Francis yesterday 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 yesterday 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," the pope 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".

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 yesterday's mass, citing the start of joint US-South Korean military drills, also due to begin yesterday.

"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 yesterday's mass a choir sang Our Wish is Unification.

As the pope's plane entered Chinese airspace on its return flight, the pontiff sent a telegram to 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 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 Francis' predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had to avoid Chinese airspace during an Asia trip.

On Sunday, the pontiff 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.

One of the "comfort women" who sat in the front row at yesterday's mass, Kim Bok-dong, gave the pope a butterfly-shaped pin that he wore on his vestment.

The pin means the women want to be liberated and fly in a peaceful and free world, a group supporting them said.