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Pope emphasizes 'fraternal' dialogue with China, others

HAEMI, South Korea -- Pope Francis made his strongest gesture yet to reach out to China on Sunday, saying he “earnestly” wants to improve relations and insisting that the Catholic Church isn't coming in as a “conqueror” trying to take away the identity of others but as a partner in dialogue.

Francis outlined his priorities for the Catholic Church in Asia during a meeting of the region's bishops, urging them to listen to people of different cultures, show them empathy in dialogue while still remaining true to their own Catholic identity.

“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 said.

Then deviating from his text, he added: “I'm not talking here only about a political dialogue, but about a fraternal dialogue,” he said. “These Christians aren't coming as conquerors, they aren't trying to take away our identity.” He said the important thing was to “walk together.”

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope's remarks were “obviously a sign of goodwill for dialogue” with China as well as the other countries in Asia with which the Vatican doesn't have diplomatic relations: North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Bhutan and Brunei. “This offer of the pope for dialogue is to all these lands and not just one, even if China is the biggest,” he said.

He acknowledged that Francis has so far refrained on the trip from making any outwardly political statement about China, which counts some 12 million Catholics, but that the speech was a clear affirmation of a desire for dialogue with Beijing. It was also a message to the bishops who might be working in countries, directly or indirectly, that they can sow the seeds for dialogue through charitable works and educational services even before official diplomatic relations with the Holy See are established.

China cut relations with the Vatican in 1951, after the 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. The Vatican under then-Pope Benedict XVI sought to improve ties by seeking to unify the state-sanctioned church with the underground church still loyal to Rome.

Vatican-China ties have already broken new ground on Francis' first Asian trip, with Beijing agreeing to let Francis' Alitalia charter fly through its airspace; when St. John Paul II last came to South Korea in 1989, Beijing refused to let him fly overhead. With the fly-by confirmed, Francis sent the traditional greetings he sends to the leadership of countries he flies over. That said, there have been reports that some Chinese Catholics who wanted to participate in the Asian Catholic youth festival here were prevented from coming.

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Pope Francis, left, blesses a child upon his arrival for the Closing Holy Mass of the 6th Asian Youth Day at Haemi Castle in Haemi, south of Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Aug. 17. (AP)

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