Pope Francis urges dialogue as he begins South Korea visit

Pope Francis: "Korea's quest for peace is a cause close to our hearts"

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Pope Francis urged dialogue between the two Koreas instead of "displays of force" at the start of his five-day visit to South Korea.

The Pope's call for peace came hours after North Korea fired short-range rockets around the time of his arrival.

It is his first visit to Asia since he became pope in March 2013.

Pope Francis will beatify Korean Catholics who died for their faith, attend a Catholic youth festival and conduct a "reconciliation" mass.

In a speech addressed to South Korean President Park Geun-hye and senior officials, the Pope said reconciliation on the Korean peninsula had implications for "the stability of the entire area and indeed of the whole war-weary world".

"Diplomacy... is based on the firm and persevering conviction that peace can be won through quiet listening and dialogue, rather than by mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force," he said.

He also called on Koreans to set an example for future generations. "I think it is especially important for us to reflect on the need to give our young people the gift of peace," he said.

Earlier in the day, North Korea fired three rockets off its east coast as the Pope's plane approached South Korean airspace. It fired another two in the afternoon.

Pyongyang has engaged in several such launches in recent months in what it says is a response to US and South Korean provocations - in the latest case, a military drill due to start on Monday.

No North Koreans

The Pope is spending five days in South Korea, where the Catholic Church is growing. It currently has just over 5.4 million members, some 10.4% of the population.

Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye upon his arrival on 14 August, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea President Park Geun-hye greeted the pontiff on his arrival in South Korea
Workers lay a red carpet on the platform of a stage as they prepare for a special mass by Pope Francis at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, South Korea, on 13 August 2014 Preparations are under way at Gwanghwamun Square for the papal mass

Pope Francis will pay tribute to some of South Korea's first Catholics when he beatifies 124 Koreans who died in the 18th and 19th Centuries. After an individual is beatified, he or she is given the title "blessed".

The ceremony will be held on Saturday at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, with up to one million people expected to attend.

The pontiff is also attending Asian Youth Day, a festival for young Catholics from across the region, and will meet students who survived the Sewol ferry disaster.

On the last day of his visit, on Monday, the Pope plans to hold a "reconciliation" mass in the Myeong-dong cathedral in Seoul.

He will deliver a message of peace for the divided Koreas and East Asia, according to Yonhap News Agency.

North Korea rejected an invitation by the Archdiocese of Seoul for 10 North Korean Catholics to attend the final mass, South Korean officials say.

It is not clear how many Catholics there are in North Korea. A UN Human Rights Council report released in February 2014 said that apart from the few organised state-controlled churches, Christians were prohibited from practising their religion and were persecuted.

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes: "South Korea is a huge success story for the Catholic Church"

Pope Francis is due to visit Asia again in January when he travels to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, one of only two Asian countries with a Catholic majority - the other being East Timor.

Pope John Paul II was the last pope to visit South Korea in 1989, where he prayed for reunification between the North and the South.

Beijing detente?

Meanwhile, on his way to South Korea the Pope also sent a telegram to China's leaders, a tradition when the pontiff flies over a country.

"I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and wellbeing on the nation," he said.

In response, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told AFP news agency that "China all along has retained sincerity towards improving China-Vatican relations."

She added that China was "willing to continue making efforts with the Vatican to advance constructive dialogue and promote the process of improving bilateral relations".

The Vatican has no official ties with Beijing. The last time a pope visited the region, he had to avoid Chinese air space.

But in what a Church spokesman has called "a sign of detente", the papal plane was given permission to use Chinese air space.

More than 100 Chinese people were due to attend Asian Youth Day, but about half were unable to attend due to "a complicated situation inside China", said a spokesman for a committee organising the Pope's visit.

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