The Pope of surprises flies East

Pope Francis laughs with Korean bishops

It a quarter of a century since a Pope visited the Korean peninsula. Pope Francis' five-day visit creates a chance to preach reconciliation between North and South Korea, as well a rare opportunity for dialogue with China, writes AP.

Here's five fascinating facts about the Pope's Asian trip:

1. China fly-by

Vatican protocol calls for the pope to send greetings to the heads of state of the countries he flies over when traveling. Usually, these telegrams aren't worth mentioning, except that Pope Francis has flown through Chinese airspace en route to Seoul.

China and the Holy See haven't had diplomatic relations since 1951, when the officially atheistic Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the Pope's authority.

As a result, the papal fly-by offered Francis a rare chance to speak directly to the Chinese leadership. When Pope St John Paul II last visited South Korea in 1989, tensions were so high that China refused to let his plane fly through its airspace.

Instead, the Alitalia charter flew via Russian airspace, providing John Paul with a first-ever opportunity to send radio greetings to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. (He said he hoped to visit Moscow soon.)

Francis has already exchanged informal (and private) letters with Chinese President Xi Jinping, so the papal telegram should at the very least offer a first public view of Vatican efforts under Francis to engage the Beijing leadership. 

2. Korean martyrs

One of the highlights of Francis' trip is the Aug. 16 beatification of 124 Korean martyrs, killed for their faith by the anti-Western rulers of the Joseon Dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Unlike most countries where missionary priests brought Catholicism and spread it, South Korea's church is uniquely homegrown: Members of Korea's noble classes discovered the faith in the 18th century reading books by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci that they brought back from China.

Their interest spread, until finally the first Korean was baptised in Beijing in 1784.

Historians say early believers were struck by the idea of a religion that preached universal equality in divine eyes at a time when the nobility's discriminatory hierarchical system brutally exploited ordinary people.

Despite its local roots, Korean Catholics weren't immune from persecutions waged against Christians across Asia and an estimated 10,000 Korean Catholics were killed by the Joseon Dynasty, which tried to shut the Korean Peninsula off from Western influence.

Read full article: Martyrs and peace with Pyonyang top Pope's agenda (AP)

MORE:

Pontiff Voices Hope for Korean Peace and Grief for Ferry Victims (The New York Times)

Pope tells bishops to be guardians of memory and hope (Vatican Radio)

North Korea fires projectiles as Pope Francis arrives in Seoul (news.com.au)

Korea trip fulfils the dream of the seminarian Jorge Bergoglio (Catholic News Agency)

In Pope’s Trip to South Korea, Church Envisions Growth (The New York Times)

Opinion: Why is Pope Francis going to South Korea? (CNN)

Places Pope Francis Will Visit in South Korea (The Wall Street Journal)

IMAGE: From EWTN's Facebook collection

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