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Pope Francis has called for peace and reconciliation on the first day of his pastoral visit to South Korea, as protests threatened to overshadow the five-day trip.
Addressing the President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, at the Blue House in Seoul this afternoon Pope Francis said that South Korea’s quest for peace with the North was close to his heart, “for it affects the stability of the entire area and indeed of our whole war-weary world.”
“It is my hope that Korean democracy will continue to be strengthened and that this nation will prove to be a leader also in the globalisation of solidarity which is so necessary today,” he said.
North Korea fired three rockets off its east coast as Francis’ plane approached South Korean airspace. Pyongyang says such actions are a response to US and South Korean provocations – in this case, a military exercise due to start on Monday.
South Korea’s five million Catholics are a minority in the country, one that Pope Francis hopes to encourage on his third trip abroad.
Today he also met the country’s bishops. During his six-day trip – the first papal visit to South Korea in 25 years – he will attend the sixth Asian World Youth Day and beatify 124 Korean martyrs.
Bereaved relatives of the victims of this year’s Sewol ferry tragedy have occupied a square in Seoul where a million Catholics are expected to gather on Saturday for a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
Dozens of activists have been camped out in Gwanghwamun Square for weeks, to demand an independent inquiry into the disaster that killed 476 people in April this year.
The demonstrators, some of whom are on hunger strike, have vowed to “fight back” if authorities attempt to clear the square.
Yesterday Francis became the first Pope to cross Chinese airspace, and sent an unprecedented message to President Xi Jinping.
He also sent a telegram to Russian President Vladimir Putin wishing “peace and wellbeing” for Russians. The messages of goodwill were sent as he flew through the airspace of each country. He also sent greetings to leaders in Mongolia, Belarus and other countries on his way to Korea last night.
It is Vatican protocol for the Pope to extend his blessings to those countries he flies over but Vatican-watchers said that Beijing’s decision to allow the papal plane to enter Chinese airspace gave Francis an opportunity to reach out to China.
When John Paul II visited Korea he avoided Chinese airspace. The message to the Chinese leader read, in English:
"Upon entering Chinese air space, I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens and I invoke the divine blessing of peace and well-being upon the nation," he said in a radio message.”
China has prevented half of its 100 young pilgrims travelling to Korea for World Youth Day from leaving the country, the news agency Reuters reported today, adding that some had been arrested. A Vatican spokesman said that the situation was “complicated” but declined to give further details, citing attendees’ safety.
The country, an ally of North Korea’s, is one of very few with which the Vatican has no diplomatic relationship, a state of affairs dating from the time of the Communist takeover in 1949. When St John Paul II visited South Korea in 1989, his plane avoided Chinese air space.
The ecumenical rights agency, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said it hoped that Francis would draw attention to North Korea’s “dire” record on human rights and religious freedom.
South Korea will be on the highest security alert for the visit. But Francis – who is famously frugal – has refused a Popemobile for his visit and instead asked for the most compact Korean-made car.
Police will be keen not to repeat a security nightmare from 1984, when a college student fired a toy gun at the Pope’s convoy.
Organisers have instead arranged for Francis to be driven in a Kia Soul, which has a better safety record than the smallest Korean-made car.
Top: Pope Francis greets people as he arrives in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring
Above: Pope Francis arrives in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring