Pope Francis used a meeting with Asian bishops on Sunday to call for dialogue free from politics in a reference to delicate relations with China, the first he has made during his landmark trip to the region. In an intimate mass in central Haemi, a town of Catholic martyrs, the pope strayed from a prepared speech to say the Vatican hoped to establish relations with countries with which there are currently none – China, North Korea, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Brunei. “I’m not here speaking only of political dialogue but other human fraternal dialogue,” he said. The comments were made during a speech in which he labeled the four main challenges to the Church in Asia: individualism, superficiality, easy answers and a lack of empathy. “On this vast continent which is home to a great variety of cultures, the Church is called to be versatile and creative in her witness to the Gospel through dialogue and openness to all. Dialogue, in fact, is an essential part of the mission of the Church in Asia,” he said. The pope assured that Christians were not “conquerors” seeking to strip away “identity” in an apparent reassurance to the Chinese government. Although the pope did not mention China by name, his deviations from his pre-written speech were considered direct references to difficult relations between the Vatican and Beijing in particular, amid continued disagreement over ordinations. In May, China issued a national security policy paper labeling Western religion as “seditious” and “deceptive”. Although the government allowed the first papal flight over China early on Thursday morning as Francis approached Seoul, it has reportedly barred Catholics from coming to South Korea for the pope’s landmark first visit to Asia. Some Chinese Catholics have made the trip, however. Between 500 and 600 Chinese Catholics attended mass led by the pope in Daejeon’s World Cup Stadium on Friday morning. At least four priests declined the opportunity to take part for fear their faces would be shown on live television broadcasts, said a Church source in China who declined to be named for security reasons. Of the more than 80 bishops who attended mass with the pope in Haemi on Sunday morning, none were from China among a group that included those from Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as other countries where Christianity is restricted including Vietnam. Chinese restrictions during the pope’s trip coincide with rising persecution, particularly in the prosperous southeastern province of Zhejiang where authorities last week continued to detain Christians protesting church demolitions in the port city of Wenzhou. So far during his visit to South Korea, the pope has avoided even veiled references to China. On Friday, he declined to answer a young Hong Kong delegate when he asked a question on the situation facing Chinese Christians during a private gathering as part of Asian Youth Day. “If there is nothing concrete [in terms of progress on relations] it is better to be prudent,” spokesman Federico Lombardi said explaining the Vatican’s silence on relations with Beijing.
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Suggesting that China was not willing to improve ties with the Vatican, he added on Sunday: “For a dialogue you need two, not just one.” In a rare statement on relations between the two sides, foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said that China’s efforts remained “sincere” and “positive” during a regular press briefing in Beijing on Thursday, the day Francis arrived in South Korea. “We are willing to continue working with [the] Vatican through constructive dialogues to promote bilateral relations,” she said.