South Korean President: North Would Welcome Pope

The Vatican reacted cautiously, but John Paul II has expressed a desire to visit North Korea

BY: Beliefnet News Services

SEOUL, South Korea, June 16--North Korea has expressed a willingness to invite Pope John Paul II to visit the communist country, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung said Friday after visiting the North for a historic summit.

In a Cabinet meeting, the South Korean president said that during the three-day summit, which ended Thursday, he asked his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Il, to invite the pope to visit his country, according to his spokesman, Park Joon-young.

``He (Kim Jong Il) inquired about the pope's age and then said, `Let him come and visit,''' the spokesman quoted the president as telling the Cabinet meeting.

During a visit with the 80-year-old pope in the Vatican in March, Kim Dae-jung, a devout Roman Catholic, suggested a papal visit to the North, saying that it would enhance peace on the divided Korean peninsula. At the time, Kim said the pope showed an interest. He quoted John Paul as saying that if he can go to North Korea, it would be ``a miracle.''

Vatican officials reacted with cautious hope Friday to word that North Korea may be willing to invite John Paul, a visit considered impossible until recently.

The Vatican said it had not received any official notification of an invitation, so therefore it was premature to speculate when such a trip could take place.

A visit by the 80-year-old pope would be part of his efforts to promote reconciliation among peoples all over the world and bring him closer to China, a country he has long sought to visit.

``Positive reaction, but caution. This is the attitude of the South Korean church,'' said Fides, the Vatican's missionary news service.

Only in recent years has the Vatican had any contact at all with North Korea, an isolated country where there is no known Roman Catholic community. Since 1996, the Vatican has sent a series of diplomatic and humanitarian missions to the country.

North Korea does not encourage religion among its tightly controlled population of 22 million, although it built three churches--two Protestant and one Catholic--in the late 1980s. South Korea, with a population of 46 million, has some 4 million Roman Catholics.

There is no known Roman Catholic community in North Korea.

Fides said there are about 4,000 North Koreans belonging to a Catholic association it described as even more tied to the state than China's state-controlled Catholic church, which is not affiliated with the Vatican.

The recent opening of an Italian embassy in North Korea would certainly facilitate contacts between the Vatican and Pyongyang. South Korean officials view the North's willingness to invite the pope as another sign of the communist country opening up after long isolation.

However, Father Bernardo Cervellera, the director of Fides, insisted that a visit could only take place "as soon as certain preconditions" relating to easing religious restrictions are fulfilled.

According to Cervellera, who has spent several years working in Asia and is considered an expert on the Catholic Church in Asia, preconditions for a visit would include the recognition of the Catholic church, reopening the country to Catholic priests and the reunification of the churches.

He said a key first step towards a papal visit would for the north to invite Seoul's Archbishop Nicholas Cheong, who is responsible for Pyongyang but is forbidden from visiting.

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