Early on Thursday morning above Mongolia’s remote southern frontier, Alitalia Flight AZ 4000 made a radio call for authorization to enter Chinese airspace, a routine request along any flight path but symbolic in this case. On at least two previous papal flights to Asia – to South Korea in 1989 and the Philippines in 1995 – China had denied an over-flight.
“Upon entering Chinese air space, 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,” the pope said in a telegram to President Xi Jinping from the plane.
Although routine during papal over-flights, the message marked a rare public exchange between the Vatican and Beijing, and a first gesture by the pope to regimes in the region during a landmark Asian trip of small yet steady diplomatic gains.
It remains unclear why Xi – who took power the same week Francis was elected pope in March last year – allowed the pontiff to make a first flight across and back over China en route to South Korea but it set up the opportunity for further interactions. Flying back from Seoul on Monday, Francis sent another message to Xi.
The hope for the Church is that these baby steps will lead to formal relations with Beijing which in turn can serve as a platform to improve religious freedoms in China, and even the overall rights situation in the world’s most populous nation.
This month, authorities have continued to detain church staff opposing demolitions and the removal of crosses at more than 230 churches in prosperous Zhejiang province, the frontline of a Chinese crackdown on Christians started this year. Dozens have been injured in scuffles with police, many plain-clothed in operations denied officially by authorities.
“It is the worst [persecution against Christians] since the Cultural Revolution,” Chinese-American Pastor Bob Fu, president of Texas-based Christian rights group China Aid, told The Diplomat.
During the first papal trip to Asia in 15 years, Francis’ response was muted but implicit as the Vatican maintains a difficult balancing act designed to reassure Beijing without deserting China’s estimated 12 to 21 million Catholics.
On Friday, Francis dodged a question on the situation facing Chinese Christians posed by a young delegate at Asia Youth Day in Solmoe, central South Korea, and later the same day Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi declined to confirm a meeting with Chinese officials that reportedly took place in June.
The same day Francis assured the region that Christians were not “conquerors” trying to remove national “identity,” a clear appeal to China which in May issued a security policy paper warning that Western religion was among the greatest threats to Chinese national identity and security.
The pope waited until the flight back to Rome to talk in any detail about what remain delicate relations.
“We respect the Chinese people. The Church only asks for freedom for its job, its work – no other condition,” he said. The comments represent the most explicit statement on the Vatican’s negotiating position in regards to relations with China.
The key sticking points for the Vatican remain China’s insistence that it decide bishop ordinations and retain control of church leaders, where people can worship and the rising persecution of Christians apparently operating within the law, particularly in Zhejiang.
Although suspicions remain that Beijing has no intention of ever establishing formal ties with the Holy See, a foreign ministry spokesman said after the pope landed in Seoul on Thursday that China is “willing to continue working with [the] Vatican through constructive dialogues to promote bilateral relations.”
On the surface, China has few tangibles to gain outside of minimal soft power and positive PR. But if China wants to improve ties with South America and Europe the Vatican is key, said Fenggang Yang, director of the Center of Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University – the Church represents some 1.2 billion people worldwide, almost as many as China’s 1.35bn.
“The relationship with the Vatican is not only about religion, but will have important economic implications and consequences,” he said.
Beijing is in the stronger position, but with both sides remaining almost completely silent on what are believed to be minimal interactions, it remains unclear how much Xi is willing to bend, so too the pope.
Although the Vatican maintains bilateral relations with Taiwan, the pope has never visited, and reports in the past suggest it would be willing to forgo Taipei for Beijing if China meets key demands.
The Vatican has also maintained near silence not only over Christian persecution but also efforts to undermine the Church. Last month, authorities reportedly manipulated a mass in Beijing between state-sanctioned bishops and those excommunicated by the state because they were first chosen by the pope. The Vatican was no doubt annoyed by the event but said nothing.
With the Chinese government doing everything it can to cut off the pope from Chinese Catholics, maintaining contact has been difficult, but South Korea provided opportunities.
Little noticed outside of Chinese Church groups, the pope blessed a Chinese Catholic martyr among 124 others in Korea during the 18th and 19th century, thereby fast-tracking what could be a new saint from China.
Nearly 600 Chinese attended a mass in Daejeon’s World Cup stadium on Friday, and small groups attended the finale to World Youth Day in central Haemi on Sunday from Beijing and other Chinese cities. “I can’t tell you how many of us are here, I’m sorry,” said one scared Chinese Catholic participant in Haemi.
Reported restrictions by authorities designed to stop Catholics heading to South Korea proved to be a side effect that saw restrictions increase further still as a result of the pope’s landmark visit.
In South Korea where the number of Catholics has risen sharply by 70 percent to 5.4 million people over the past 10 years, the pope gained more traction. His popularity with Catholics and most non-Catholics alike here – Twitter and Facebook lit up with messages of support for Francis during his five-day trip – meant President Park Geun-hye has had to listen carefully to the pontiff’s implicit, bridge-building message.
Although her government is yet to buckle to pressure to launch a full inquiry into the Sewol ferry disaster in April that killed more than 300 people, an enduring theme of the papal visit as he met victims’ families and survivors, Park did extend an unexpected olive branch to North Korea. The South Korean president appeared to hear the pope’s call for greater human contact across the DMZ the day after he landed, as Park made an invitation to the north to come to Seoul for an ecological conference and called for more meetings between the 70,000 separated families.
“Both Koreas should open the smallest channels for meeting and communicating, through which they will understand each other and amalgamate their ways of thinking and living,” said Park, echoing a similar message by the pope during his visit.
North Korea cited the start of a U.S.-South Korea military exercise on Monday for its rejection of the offer, and this was also apparently the reason it fired rockets into the seas around the peninsula hours before and after the pope touched down in Seoul on Thursday morning. But there are signs the pope’s visit could help to kick-start greater dialogue between the two.
Shortly after Francis held a reunification mass at Seoul Cathedral also shunned by North Korea on Monday, Park again urged Pyongyang to accept greater interactions, saying the south would be ready to “discuss any subject.”
In a speech to more than 80 Asian bishops from more than 20 countries across the region on Sunday morning, Francis went off script to urge greater dialogue region-wide.
“I’m not here speaking only of political dialogue but other human fraternal dialogue,” he said, a message his spokesman later said was designed for China and North Korea as well as other restrictive regimes including Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.
In a region beset by tensions and religious intolerance, it remains to be seen whether the pope can make any lasting difference – he is due in Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January. The hope is that the Vatican’s new focus on the region after an absence of 15 years could create a foundation for progress on rights and difficult relations, said Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide based in London.
“The message was implicit. He delivered it in such a way that no-one, not even the North Korean regime, could justifiably reject it – though the North Koreans still may do so,” he said.
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.