Updated: August 11, 2014 08:01 PM GMT
Police set up a metal detector in preparation for a special Mass of reconciliation to be celebrated by Pope Francis at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul. (AFP photo/Jung Yeon-Je)
When Pope Francis departs Rome for Seoul for the first papal visit to Asia in 15 years on Wednesday afternoon, he faces obstacles that frustrated his predecessors but also the chance to build on rare opportunities in a region traditionally resistant to the Church.
After departing Rome’s Fiumicino Airport at 4pm local time, the pope’s special Alitalia chartered plane will enter Chinese airspace early on Thursday morning, a first for a papal flight. Vatican custom dictates that the Pope will radio a greeting message to China in what would be a rare interaction with China’s Communist leadership.
The Pope’s visit occurs during a time of crisis for China’s church and for democracy in Hong Kong, the most politically progressive territory under Beijing’s control.
As of August 7, at least 231 churches in eastern Zhejiang province have suffered forced demolitions or cross removals so far this year, according to the US-based Christian group China Aid.
In recent weeks, Hong Kong has seen rallies attracting hundreds of thousands of protesters in a stand-off that has seen Beijing deny the territory the chance to nominate election candidates when political reforms begin in 2017.
Both issues are likely to come up in Seoul when Cardinal John Tong and Cardinal Joseph Zen – both of Hong Kong – meet with Pope Francis during a special Asian bishops get-together at the headquarters of the Korean Bishops’ Conference in Seoul on Thursday afternoon.
The chance for dialogue on religion and rights in North Korea looks less promising, at least on the surface. Last week, North Korea’s state-run Korean Catholics Association (KCA) rejected invitations to send Catholics from the North to a special Korean reconciliation mass in Seoul on Monday, August 18, the final day of the pope’s landmark visit.
In a letter to the South Korean Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the KCA blamed an annual joint military exercise with the US on the same day as the mass for its decision not to participate.
“Under these circumstances, coming to Seoul would be an agonizing step,” the KCA said in its response.
Although opportunities for progress in addressing severe restrictions on religious freedom in North Korea appeared limited ahead of the pope’s visit, there has been recent progress, however limited.
At the end of May, Seoul’s archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung became the first Catholic cardinal to enter North Korean territory when he crossed the Demilitarized Zone and entered the Kaesong Industrial Complex where Koreans from the north and south work together.
Although rare, North Korea has shown it is willing to engage with “Western” organized religion when it suits, suggesting there are possible longer term opportunities for Pope Francis, said Frank Ruediger, a researcher on North Korea at the University of Vienna.
The late Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the head of the Unification Church, met with former leader Kim Il-sung and set up businesses in North Korea. Similarly, Pyongyang has previously made overtures to the Russian Orthodox Church, notes Ruediger.
There are also numerous Christian aid groups who have worked in North Korea since a severe famine in the mid-1990s, and there is a Christian hospital in the Rason Special Economic Zone near the Russian border.
“Officially, North Korea does guarantee freedom of religion, with the reservation that such activities should not go against the state or ‘social order’,” Ruediger told ucanews.com. “This provides the leadership with great flexibility in dealing with religions, both ways. In other words, many things are possible if the top leadership makes that decision for whatever reason – most likely economic or soft-power related.”
Addressing North Korea remains a difficult balancing act for the pope as an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians continue to languish in North Korean forced labor camps. The UN Security Council is under pressure to act on rights in the north after a detailed UN inquiry found evidence of crimes against humanity earlier this year.
In response, the North’s Association for Human Rights Studies said recently it would produce its own report on rights to expose the “sheer fabrication” of the UN probe.
Church rights groups including London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) have urged the Vatican to discuss abuses when the pope is in South Korea, raising the possibility of further alienating the regime.
“Clearly the pope will not want to be overtly ‘political’, but we simply hope he will draw attention to the situation, and call for prayer,” said Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader at CSW.
“As a spiritual and religious leader, and in the context of the beatification of Korean martyrs, it is very appropriate for him to highlight the suffering of modern-day North Korea.”
Although the pope is expected to raise rights, religious freedom and reunification in relation to North Korea – both in private and public – it remains unclear just how far he will go until his flight lands in Seoul.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi declined to comment on what could be expected from the pope on North Korea and China during the coming visit, as well as on efforts to include both Communist countries when the itinerary was being devised.
For South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Pope Francis’ visit is likely to serve as something of an endorsement and an uncomfortable experience.
The pope will make the presidential Blue House his first stop after landing in Seoul on Thursday, despite warnings from some Korean Catholic NGOs that Park would use the papal visit to galvanize her image after what they claim was a rigged 2012 election.
Groups including the Catholic National Federation for Justice had called on Pope Francis to avoid a personal meeting.
Less comfortable for the president will be the pope’s scheduled meeting with the families of victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, which resulted in more than 300 deaths in mid-April. Park’s administration has come under rising pressure to allow a full, independent inquiry into the disaster amid claims authorities bungled every stage of an attempted rescue.
So far the ruling party has rebuffed a full probe as heated debate continues in the South Korean parliament.
Family members of the victims continue to camp out at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul where the pope is scheduled to host a landmark mass which is expected to attract one million people on Saturday.
“Holy Father, please cry with us here together…. Please pray for us and protect us from being swept off the square in the name of preparing your mass,” protesters wrote in a letter to the pope earlier this month.
The episode harks back to the 1980s when Pope John Paul II visited South Korea twice in the wake of the Gwangju Massacre in which the then military regime killed at least 241 protesters. Francis will meet victims’ families just as his predecessor did a generation ago, noted Father Frank Park, a retired US-born Jesuit professor of religious sociology at Seoul’s Sogang University. The question is whether the coming papal visit can help prompt a different result.
“The [Gwangju] investigations implicated many persons but never were able to explicitly find out who gave the command to the troops to fire on citizens,” said Park.
“There is a sense now that the present investigations into the ferry boat accident will turn out the same way.”