Pope Francis has given his first interview on China praising it as a great country and a civilisation that the Church should respect.
Speaking to the Asia Times he said: “For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom.”
“It is necessary to recognise the greatness of the Chinese people, who have always maintained their culture. And their culture – I am not speaking about ideologies that there may have been in the past – their culture was not imposed.”
Francis has expressed a hope to visit China and for many years the Vatican has been working to establish full diplomatic relations with the country.
During the interview the Pope called for Europe to be open to the contribution of the eastern world and to “run the risk of balancing this exchange for peace”.
He said: “The western world, the eastern world and China all have the capacity to maintain the balance of peace and the strength to do so. We must find the way, always through dialogue; there is no other way.”
Francis went on to praise the Chinese government for removing their one child policy and conveyed Chinese New Year greetings to President Xi Jinping and the country saying, “the world looks to this great wisdom of yours.”
As a young man the Pope had wanted to be a missionary in the far east. During the interview, which was conducted by Asia Times columnist and university lecturer Francesco Sisci, Francis mentioned Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary in China who was famed for his deep understanding of Chinese culture.
Francis said that “Ricci’s experience teaches us that it is necessary to enter into dialogue with China, because it is an accumulation of wisdom and history”.
The Chinese communist regime currently sanctions a state-run Catholic Church which exists alongside an underground one. The government currently appoints the bishops of the state-run Church and this has been a major sticking point for the Vatican in its hopes to normalise relations with China. For its part, the Holy See has said it is willing to move its embassy from Taiwan to mainland China.
There are, however, hopes of a breakthrough under Pope Francis and his chief diplomat Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, who in a previous role worked on Holy See relations with China from 2002 to 2009 coming close to reaching a deal.
Last October, a delegation from the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, met with Beijing officials and talks between the two sides are ongoing.