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In interview, pope offers encouraging words to Beijing

Francis praises China's 'greatness,' while calling for further dialogue

In interview, pope offers encouraging words to Beijing

In an interview with the Asia Times, Pope Francis praised China amid a delicate dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing. (Photo by AFP)

Published: February 03, 2016 09:06 AM GMT

Updated: February 03, 2016 09:12 AM GMT

Pope Francis has issued a historic Chinese New Year message to President Xi Jinping in a rare interview praising the world's most populous nation as a delicate dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing continues.

In the first-ever New Year's greeting by a pope to a Chinese leader, Francis urged the world not to fear China's rise as he repeatedly massaged the ego of a nation both traditionally isolated and keen to gain global acceptance.

"The Western world, the Eastern world and China all have the capacity to maintain the balance of peace and the strength to do so. We must find the way, always through dialogue; there is no other way," he told the AsiaTimes in an interview conducted at the Vatican.

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The pope's words of peace come amid a two-year-old campaign in China to remove crosses from churches and delicate talks between the Vatican and Beijing that entered a third round on Jan. 25 with little sign of compromise on the key issue of bishop ordinations.

Taiwan's new ambassador to the Vatican, Matthew Lee, told ucanews.com in late January there had been "no particular advancement" in the talks. Formal relations between the Holy See and Taipei in itself remain a key sticking point for Beijing, which insists countries seeking diplomatic ties must first sever those with Taiwan.

In his most detailed comments yet on China, the pope cited Matteo Ricci, the 16th-century Italian Jesuit who rose to become an official in Beijing's imperial court, admiring "how he was able to enter dialogue with this great culture."

The pope's comments frequently gave praise to China's cultural legacy and its "wisdom" as he delivered a succession of flattering appraisals of a country that regularly cites its own 5,000-year history as evidence of superiority.

"For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness," he said at the outset of the interview.

The pontiff made a humorous reference that China may have invented "pasta noodles" by way of Marco Polo, a common claim among Chinese but not among Italians.

For a country that often complains of one-sided criticism from the West, the pope's uncritical appraisal of China past and present will have to come as a refreshing surprise to the Chinese, particularly to atheist Communist Party leaders in Beijing.

Xi's government has reversed the cause of religious freedom since he became president in March 2013, the same week Francis became pope.

At the end of the same year, provincial authorities in Zhejiang kicked off a church-demolition and cross-removal campaign considered among the most repressive toward a religious minority in China since the Cultural Revolution. More than 1,500 church crosses have been removed, including at least 18 this year, most of them Protestant but many Catholic.

Francis did not touch on any of this recent repression in his comments. Responding to questions on family and in particular China's One Child Policy — which Beijing retracted at the end of last year — in typical style Francis refrained from lecturing.

"I feel rather like a 'mother-in-law' giving advice on what should be done," he said.

The undertone appeared designed to separate the pope from more critical voices among Western governments toward China, not least the United States, which in December again condemned Beijing for the deterioration of religious freedom.

Expanding on comments made during his first visit to Asia as pope in South Korea in August 2014, Francis made his case that the Chinese had nothing to fear from the wider world — not even the church.


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