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Pope Francis celebrates reunification Mass as North Korea issues threats

The pontiff concluded his visit with a call for forgiveness and unity at Myeongdong cathedral

<p>Pope Francis greets Han Yang-Won, chairman of the Association for Korean Native Religion, and other religious leaders at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Monday. (AFP photo/Jung Yeon-Je)</p>

Pope Francis greets Han Yang-Won, chairman of the Association for Korean Native Religion, and other religious leaders at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Monday. (AFP photo/Jung Yeon-Je)

  • Steve Finch, Seoul
  • Korea
  • August 18, 2014
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Pope Francis led a reunification mass in Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Monday that was overshadowed by a war of words between North and South Korea ahead of the pontiff’s departure.

In a ceremony shunned by the state-run Church in North Korea, the pope called on the divided peninsula to forgive “unreservedly” in the elusive quest for peace.

“God’s urgent summons to conversion also challenges Christ’s followers in Korea … to reject a mindset shaped by suspicion, confrontation and competition, and instead to shape a culture formed by the teaching of the Gospel and the noblest traditional values of the Korean people,” he said during his homily inside Seoul’s 130-year-old Gothic revival cathedral.

But the pope’s five-day visit ended as it had begun: with a warning from North Korea that it would attack the South unless the government in Seoul canceled an annual military exercise scheduled to start the same day.

“We again declare that we will open the strongest, most merciless pre-emptive attacks of our own style at any time since the US and the South have threatened to deploy their customized deterrence strategies for their exercises,” the North Korean military said in a statement late on Sunday.

The joint US-South Korean military exercise was cited as a reason for North Korea’s rejection of an invitation to send representatives to the Mass on Monday, which was attended by President Park Geun-hye.

North Korea also rejected on Sunday an invitation to discuss a new round of family reunions for those separated by the Demilitarized Zone and a host of other inter-Korean issues proposed by Park on Friday, the same day the pope made his first call for reunification during his five-day visit.

“There is no sincerity in her stated wish to mend cross-border relations,” said Rodong Shimbun, the newspaper of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.

North Korea would only return to peace negotiations with the South if Seoul ended sanctions imposed after the sinking of its navy ship the Cheonan in March 2010, it added.

North Korea’s rhetoric suggested the papal visit would have little bearing on efforts towards peace on the Korean peninsula despite Park’s unexpected invitations to the South and Monday's mass, which brought together a range of people involved in efforts towards reunification.

The ceremony included 30 priests and nuns born in North Korea before the war that divided the peninsula in the 1950s.

“Priests, nuns and lay people are living here [in Seoul] as displaced people,” said Father Hur Yong-yup, spokesman of the Preparatory Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea.

Also included were 200 South Korean priests hand-picked due to their efforts towards reunification, five Maryknoll Missioners, a group that has funded cross-DMZ dialogue, and South Korean religious leaders from faiths including Buddhism and Protestant denominations who held talks with the pope.

North Korean defectors and families of those abducted by the North were among the 1,000 people who attended.

“If I get to meet the pope… I wish to ask him to always remember the violated human rights of North Koreans,” said North Korean defector Choi, who declined to give a full name, before Monday's Mass.

Pope Francis has refrained from making public statements on the rights situation in the north – and in China – in a difficult balancing act designed to reach out to regimes in the region during his first visit to Asia.

“Jesus asks us to believe that forgiveness is the door which leads to reconciliation,” he said. “This, then, is the message I leave you as I conclude my visit to Korea.”

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