Updated: 08/14/2014 18:05 | By Agence France-Presse

Pope kicks off S. Korea visit as North fires rockets

Pope Francis called for an end to "displays of force" on the divided Korean peninsula Thursday, as North Korea marked his arrival in Seoul for a five-day visit by firing short-range rockets into the sea.


Pope kicks off S. Korea visit as North fires rockets

Pope Francis (2nd L) attends a meeting with the bishops of Korea at the headquarters of the Korean Episcopal Conference in Seoul on August 14, 2014 - by Vincenzo Pinto

In a speech to South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and top officials, Francis acknowledged the challenge of breaking down walls of "distrust and hatred" but said the quest for inter-Korean reconciliation was one that had implications for "the stability of the entire area and indeed of the whole war-weary world".

Peace could only be achieved through dialogue, "rather than mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force," he added.

Just minutes before he stepped off his plane, the nuclear-armed North fired three rockets into the Sea of Japan (East Sea), and two more later in the day.

North Korea had been invited to send a group of Catholics to attend a special inter-Korean "reconciliation" mass by Francis next week, but declined, citing upcoming South Korea-US military drills.

The choice of South Korea for the first papal visit to Asia in 15 years was a reward for one of the region's fastest-growing, most devoted and most influential Roman Catholic communities.

Smiling broadly and waving, Francis was welcomed at the airport by President Park and a reception committee that included two North Korean defectors and relatives of those killed in April's ferry disaster, which left 300 people -- mostly schoolchildren -- dead.

In line with his no-frills papacy, Francis then squeezed into the back of a compact Kia hatchback that he had specially requested for his visit.

- Message to China -

Since the early days of his pontificate, Francis has made it clear that the Vatican regards Asia as a priority, as it seeks to offset dwindling Catholic membership in Europe.

The last papal visit to Asia was by John Paul II to India back in 1999, a glaring gap for a region where the Church is making some spectacular gains but where Catholics still only account for 3.2 percent of the population.

The pope's flight to South Korea took him over China -- potentially the greatest prize of all, but also the hardest to claim. Beijing maintains a state-controlled Catholic Church, which rejects the Vatican's authority.

On entering Chinese airspace, Francis exercised papal protocol to send an unprecedented goodwill message of "divine blessings" to President Xi Jinping.

Beijing and the Vatican have been at loggerheads since China severed ties with the Holy See in 1951.

Francis will have a chance to address believers across the region on Friday when he meets several thousand young Catholics gathered in South Korea for Asian Youth Day.

The Catholic AsiaNews agency cited unidentified sources as saying a dozen Chinese priests attending the event had been warned by Beijing of repercussions if they attended the pope's address.

- Excitement in S. Korea -

Although Catholics comprise just a little over 10 percent of South Korea's 50 million population, the visit has generated a lot of public excitement, with welcome banners lining the streets of Seoul, and shops doing a brisk trade in everything from mini Francis dolls to commemorative coins.

Around one million people are expected to descend on the city centre for an open-air mass on Saturday that will see Francis beatify 124 martyrs persecuted during the early days of the Korean Catholic Church in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But the Vatican's real goal is clearly longer-term and wider-ranging: expansion in Asia.

"The pope's presence is a powerful symbol of the Vatican's recognition that it is in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that the Church is growing most prominently," said Lionel Jensen, an expert on religion in Asia at the University of Notre Dame.

South Korea provides a model that the Vatican can only hope other Asian countries might follow.

The economic "miracle" that turned it from a war-devastated backwater to an export powerhouse and Asia's fourth largest economy in a little over five decades was accompanied by an equally dramatic boom in Christianity.

Christians now comprise the largest religious bloc. While Protestants make up the majority, the number of Catholics is growing faster, with tens of thousands of new baptisms every year.

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