Pope makes first South Korean visit in 25 years

SEOUL, South Korea – Pope Francis arrived Thursday in South Korea on the first papal visit to the Asian nation in a quarter century, stepping off the plane onto a red carpet and greeting President Park Geun-hye. During his five-day visit, Francis plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism.

The pope was also greeted by relatives of a South Korean ferry sinking that killed more than 300 and descendants of Korean martyrs. Some elderly Catholics wiped tears from their faces with handkerchiefs.

As his plane flew through Chinese airspace, Pope 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.

The telegram, sent Thursday as Francis headed toward South Korea, read: “Upon entering Chinese airspace, I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”

Vatican protocol calls for Francis to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace.

Thursday’s telegram was unique though because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.

Francis has sought to continue the outreach to China launched by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. He recently revealed that he had sent a letter to Xi upon his election and had received a reply. Vatican officials say there is a dialogue with Chinese authorities. But the core issue dividing them – Rome’s insistence on naming bishops – remains.

Other highlights of Francis’ visit include his participation in a Catholic festival for young believers from around Asia and a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the war-torn Korean Peninsula. 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.