World tensions surface in pope's S. Korea visit

Last Updated Aug 14, 2014 5:56 AM EDT

SEOUL, South Korea -- Pope Francis has called for renewed efforts to forge peace on the war-divided Korean Peninsula and for both sides to avoid "fruitless" criticisms and shows of force, opening a five-day visit to South Korea with a message of reconciliation as Seoul's rival, North Korea, fired five projectiles into the sea.

North Korea has a long history of making sure it is not forgotten during high-profile events in the South, and Thursday's apparent test firing made its presence felt.

In the first speech of his first trip to Asia, Francis told South Korean President Park Geun-hye that peace required forgiveness and mutual respect. He said diplomacy must be encouraged so dialogue replaces "mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force."

South Korea said the North had test fired five projectiles Thursday morning, just as Francis was arriving for the first papal visit to South Korea in 25 years.

A Defense Ministry official said the launches were conducted from Wonsan, on the North's east coast. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office policy.

North Korea this year has conducted an unusually large number of missile and artillery test firings. Pyongyang has expressed anger over annual military drills between the United States and South Korea, which it says are invasion preparations. A new round of the drills, which Seoul and Washington call routine and defensive, are expected to start in coming days.

The type of the projectiles has yet to be determined. North Korea did not declare a no-sail zone before firing the projectiles.

Authorities in North Korea declined an invitation by the Seoul archdiocese to send a delegation to attend a Mass, the Vatican said. Still, Francis plans to reach out to North Korea during his five-day trip in a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the war-divided Korean Peninsula.

During his visit, Francis also planned to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism.

At an airport just south of Seoul, the pope shook hands with four relatives of a South Korean ferry sinking that killed more than 300, and with two descendants of Korean martyrs who died rather than renounce their faith.

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Pope Francis arrives at Seoul military airport on, Aug. 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea.
Getty

Some elderly Catholics wiped tears from their faces, bowing deeply as they greeted the pope. A boy and girl in traditional Korean dress presented Francis with a bouquet of flowers. The pope then stepped into a small, black, locally made car for the trip into Seoul, where he and President Park Geun-hye were expected to make speeches.

As his plane flew through Chinese airspace on the way to South Korea early Thursday, Francis sent a telegram of greetings and prayers to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was a rare opportunity for an exchange, since the Holy See and Beijing have no diplomatic relations, and furthers a low-key push for better relations with China and efforts to heal a rift between Chinese authorities and those Catholics who worship outside the state-recognized church.

But, according to the Reuters news agency, the visit "got off to a shaky start with the news some Chinese had been barred from joining a youth celebration."

Reuters quotes a spokesman for the Seoul committee that planned the pope's stay as saying about half of 100 Chinese who intended to attend an Asian Youth Day event during the visit won't be there due to "a complicated situation inside China."

Another organizer told Reuters some of those who wanted to attend had been arrested by Chinese authorities.

China's Foreign Ministry didn't immediately respond to Reuters' requests for comments on the pope's good will message or the Chinese said to be barred from attending the youth event.

As Reuters puts it, "Beijing rejects Vatican authority over its Catholics."

The pope is expected to meet with some families of the South Korean ferry sinking in April. The government's response to the disaster, which killed mostly high school students, has angered many South Koreans.

"A lot of bad things keep happening in our country right now, and people are going through tough times. So I hope this event can encourage people and bring more positive things to our country," said Ryun Sun-hee, a 19-year-old college student.

A few women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II will attend a Mass, although no private audience is expected, the Vatican said.

Vatican protocol calls for Francis to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace. Usually they pass unnoticed, but Thursday's telegram was unique because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.

Vatican officials say there is a dialogue with Chinese authorities. But the core issue dividing them - Rome's insistence on naming bishops - remains.

Relations between Beijing and Rome have been tense since 1951, when China severed ties with the Holy See after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope's authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s.

For the Vatican, the main stumbling block remains the insistence of the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to name bishops without papal consent to administer over the country's estimated 12 million Catholics.

Other highlights of Francis' visit include his participation in a Catholic festival for young believers from around Asia. A ceremony Saturday to beatify Korean martyrs who perished for their faith from 1791 to 1888 could draw about 1 million people, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

It's the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II traveled to South Korea in 1989. In January, Francis plans to visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

South Korea's church, which has been growing steadily over the last half century, is seen as a model for the future. Local church officials hope for a continuing increase in believers in a country that once welcomed missionaries to help spread the faith but now sends its own priests and nuns abroad to evangelize in other countries.

There was high anticipation in South Korea ahead of the visit. Banners and posters welcoming the pope decorated streets and subway stations. Yonhap reported an increase in sales of rosaries and other Catholic goods, and special displays of books on the pope and Catholicism have sprung up in book stores.

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