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Pope blesses China as he flies through airspace to S. Korea

BEIJING -- Pope Francis' greeting to Chinese President Xi Jinping as he flew to South Korea on Thursday marked a rare cordial exchange between the sides, which have no diplomatic relations and are embroiled in a sometimes bitter contest for authority.

However, any good will generated was immediately called into question by reports that Chinese officials had threatened Chinese Catholic students and priests not to take part in events related to the pope's visit.

Vatican protocol calls for Francis to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace. Usually they pass unnoticed, but Thursday's telegram was unique because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.

“Upon entering Chinese air space, I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation,” the pope's message said.

In a faxed statement, China's Foreign Ministry said it had noted the pope's statement and remained committed to improving ties.

“We are willing to continue to make efforts with the Vatican to enter into a constructive dialogue and advance the cause of improving bilateral relations,” it said.

While no Chinese officials are taking part in the visit, individual Chinese Catholics, including the many studying in South Korean seminaries and universities, had been expected to attend some events. Details were sketchy, but the Catholic website AsiaNews said about 80 young people were staying away from the events after warnings of unspecified consequences if they participated. It said a number of Chinese priests residing in South Korea had been called home before Francis' arrival.

Asked about the reports, the spokesman for the papal visit organizing committee, Heo Young-yeop, said some young Chinese Catholics had been prevented from traveling to Seoul.

“I believe some of the Chinese youth have arrived, but, as far as we know, not all of them could make it ... because of the complicated situation within China,” Heo was quoted as saying on the committee's website.

“We are extremely sad about that,” he said.

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Pope Francis, center, shakes hands with a representative of family members of victims on board the sunken ferry Sewol upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 14. (AP)

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