Pope Francis speaks to reporters during a news conference on Nov. 26 on board the papal plane on his flight back from a week-long trip to Thailand and Japan. (Photo: Remo Casilli/AFP)
Pope Francis dodged any commentary on China and Hong Kong during his traditional press conference aboard the papal plane at the end of his week-long trip to Thailand and Japan, the first such papal visits in almost four decades.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has come under fresh attack on its human rights record in recent months after reams of leaked documents revealed the extent of of the horrors being inflicted on Muslim ethnic minorities in camps in the province of Xinjiang, said to house 1-2 million mainly Uyghurs but also Kazakhs, Uzbeks and other Muslim minorities.
Beijing has also come under fire for backing the Hong Kong government’s police force in its sometimes brutal attempts to put down six months of street protests in which two lives have been lost.
While the media failed to ask the pope on his flight to Rome about either the Uyghur situation, which the pope has remained silent on, or the ongoing implementation of the provisional Vatican-China deal on appointing bishops — only two of about 30 “underground” bishops have been accepted by Beijing 14 months after the deal was signed — he was asked when he might visit China. The pope simply said: “I would like to go to Beijing. I love China.”
But he appeared to prevaricate on the protests in Hong Kong when asked about them and the recent municipal elections.
“With regard to the other question you asked me, when we think about it, it’s not just Hong Kong," Pope Francis said.
“Think about Chile, think about France, democratic France: a year of yellow jackets. Think of Nicaragua, think of other Latin American countries that have problems like this, and even some European countries. It’s something general. How does the Holy See handle this? It calls for dialogue, for peace.
"But it’s not only Hong Kong; there are various problematic situations that I am unable to evaluate at the moment. I respect peace and I ask for peace for all these countries that have problems, Spain too. It is better to put things in perspective and to call for dialogue, for peace, so that problems can be resolved.”
Yet while the pope has remained silent on any specifics on Hong Kong — and indeed anything else that might upset Beijing — while the Vatican works away at trying to get more of its 30 or so recognized bishops approved by the Communist Party-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, some of his senior representatives in Hong Kong continue to be active in supporting protesters and democracy.
Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, 87, issued a video ahead of voting in last weekend’s council elections, which saw huge gains made by pro-democracy, anti-establishment parties, urging all people, especially Catholics, to vote in good faith.
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, 60, was passed over by the Vatican on the death of Bishop Michael Yeung in January. Instead, retired Cardinal John Tong Hon, 80, who had stepped down two years earlier, was asked to return to lead Hong Kong Diocese.
Bishop Ha has been active, often with Cardinal Zen, in supporting protesters, recently visiting students barricaded inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University.