BEIJING -- Pope Francis’ greeting to Chinese President Xi Jinping as he flew to South Korea on Thursday marked a rare cordial exchange between the sides, which have no diplomatic relations and are embroiled in a sometimes bitter contest for authority.
However, any goodwill generated was immediately called into question by reports that Chinese officials had threatened Chinese Catholic students and priests not to take part in events related to the pope’s visit.
Vatican protocol calls for Francis to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace. Usually they pass unnoticed, but Thursday’s telegram was unique because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.
"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’s message said.
In a faxed statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said it had noted the pope’s statement and remained committed to improving ties.
"We are willing to continue to make efforts with the Vatican to enter into a constructive dialogue and advance the cause of improving bilateral relations," it said.
While no Chinese officials are taking part in the visit, individual Chinese Catholics, including the many studying in South Korean seminaries and universities, had been expected to attend some events.
Details were sketchy, but the Catholic website AsiaNews said about 80 young people were staying away from the events after warnings of unspecified consequences if they participated. It said a number of Chinese priests residing in South Korea had been called home before Francis’ arrival.
Asked about the reports, the spokesman for the papal visit organizing committee, Heo Young-yeop, said some young Chinese Catholics had been prevented from traveling to Seoul.
"I believe some of the Chinese youth have arrived, but, as far as we know, not all of them could make it ... because of the complicated situation within China," Heo was quoted as saying on the committee’s website.
"We are extremely sad about that," he said.
People who answered the phone at the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association said they had no information about arrangements related to the pope’s visit.
Vatican officials say there is a dialogue with Chinese authorities. But the core issue dividing them -- Rome’s insistence on naming bishops -- remains.
"These are friendly gestures, but I wouldn’t expect any breakthroughs," said Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, which closely monitors the church in mainland China.
Relations between Beijing and Rome have been tense since 1951, when China severed ties with the Holy See after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope’s authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s.
For the Vatican, the main stumbling block remains the insistence of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association on naming bishops without papal consent to administer over the country’s estimated 12 million Catholics.
The sides had forged a tacit agreement to appoint mutually acceptable bishops, a way for them to unify the state-approved church with underground congregations that remain loyal to Rome. That broke down in 2010 when Beijing named a bishop rejected by the Vatican, bringing another round of angry invective from Chinese religious authorities.
Ties hit another low point when China carted away the bishop of Shanghai on the day of his 2012 ordination after he publicly renounced membership in the Patriotic Association, shocking and angering officials. The bishop, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, has not been seen in public since and is believed to be confined to Shanghai’s Sheshan Seminary.
Beijing’s rhetoric has cooled in the 17 months since both Xi and Francis took office, with the Argentine pope saying he has written to Xi and received a response. Media close to the Vatican also said the sides met in June, although no details were released.
And in the first real test of ties since Francis became pope, the Vatican has yet to indicate its acceptance of Tang Yuange, who was appointed bishop of the southwestern city of Chengdu in May. Xi, the son of a revered communist elder, has also yet to make his personal views on Vatican ties -- or religion in general -- public.
While China’s state media largely ignored the pope’s visit, brief reports about the first-ever papal flight over China and extending of greetings were posted on the popular Twitter-like Weibo microblog site -- an indication they weren’t a censored topic.
The popular Global Times tabloid also carried a roundup of foreign media reports on the issue, along with comments from Chinese expert on Vatican diplomacy Kong Chenyan, who called it a "positive development" in China-Vatican relations.
However, Kong said China remained unhappy with what it sees as the Vatican’s lack of respect for Chinese sovereignty, its relations with Taiwan, and lingering resentment over the canonization of saints viewed by the ruling party as enemies of the Chinese people.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from aboard the papal jet. Writer Foster Klug and researcher Jung-yoon Choi contributed from Seoul.