Pope Francis to send greeting to China during fly-over to Seoul
Pope Francis' coming trip to South Korea will provide an unusual opportunity to speak directly to the leadership in Beijing. His plane is due to fly through Chinese airspace, and Vatican protocol calls for the pope to send greetings to leaders of all the countries he flies over.
When St John Paul last visited South Korea as pope in 1989, China refused to let his plane fly overhead. Instead, the Alitalia charter flew via Russian airspace, providing John Paul with the first opportunity to send radio greetings to then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. He said he hoped to soon visit Moscow.
Vatican spokesman the Reverend Federico Lombardi said he did not know what Francis' Chinese greetings might entail, but he confirmed the August 13-14 flight plan to Seoul involved Chinese airspace.
Relations between Beijing and Rome have been tense since 1951, when China severed ties after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope's authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s.
Former pope Benedict sought to improve relations with China and encourage the estimated eight million to 12 million Catholics who live there, around half of whom worship in secret congregations.
Francis has continued the initiative, revealing in a recent newspaper interview that he had written to President Xi Jinping after his election, which occurred within hours of his own, and that Xi had replied.
Recently, Francis' deputy, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told the Italian Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana that the Vatican was in favour of "a respectful and constructive dialogue" with Chinese authorities to try to resolve problems that limit religious freedom in China.
For the Vatican, the main stumbling block is the insistence of the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association on naming bishops without papal consent.
Beyond the in-flight greetings, Francis' five-day visit to South Korea is expected to offer him other opportunities to reach out to China. However, the main reason for the visit is an Asian Catholic youth festival that some Catholics from China are expected to attend.
In addition, he will celebrate a mass of peace and reconciliation on August 18, his final day, in which he will refer to North Korea and possibly China as well.