VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI (search) reached out Thursday to countries that don't have diplomatic relations with the Vatican (search), inviting them to establish ties soon with the Holy See (search).
Benedict didn't identify the countries, but Vatican officials said he may have been referring to China, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. The pope said only that he appreciated messages and gestures that came from some of them following the death of Pope John Paul II (search) and his election.
Chinese officials expressed condolences after John Paul died, and both Saudi Arabia and Vietnam sent representatives to Benedict's inaugural Mass.
Benedict made the comments in a speech to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, his first since being elected pope on April 19. He delivered his speech in French — the language of diplomacy — to representatives of the 174 countries with which the Vatican has relations, in a ceremony in the Sala Regia of the Apostolic Palace.
"I'm thinking also about the nations with which the Holy See still hasn't entered into diplomatic relations," Benedict told the ambassadors, many in formal dress with sashes and medals.
He said he appreciated that some of these countries sent messages or otherwise "associated themselves" with the Vatican following the death of John Paul.
"I want to express my gratitude and address a deferential greeting to the civil authorities of these countries, expressing the wish to see them soon represented at the Apostolic See," he said. He said he particularly appreciated the messages that came from countries where the Catholic community is large, and he assured the faithful there of his prayers.
China didn't send any official condolences to the Vatican following John Paul's death, but a Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed condolences during a news conference with foreign reporters, and Premier Wen Jiabao said April 21 that China was willing to build relations with the Vatican if Benedict breaks ties with rival Taiwan.
Beijing's communist government ordered Chinese Catholics to break ties with the Vatican in 1951. Roman Catholic churches in China are run by a government-sanctioned group that recognizes the pope as a spiritual leader but has no formal relations with the Vatican and appoints its own priests and bishops.
The Catholic Patriotic Association of China and the Chinese Catholic Bishops College — both part of the government-controlled church — sent a telegram to the Vatican expressing "deep condolences" over John Paul's death.
The Vatican is the only European government that has official relations with Taiwan. China still claims the self-ruled island as its territory and refuses to have any official contact with governments that recognize its rival as a sovereign country.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines, was represented by three people at Benedict's April 24 inaugural Mass and had its social affairs minister at John Paul's funeral, according to a Vatican list.
Vietnam's prime minister sent condolences to the Vatican after the pope's death and its ambassador to Italy was at Benedict's inauguration. Its relations with the Vatican have been strained over Hanoi's demand on having a final say over all church appointments — a demand Rome rejects. While predominantly Buddhist, Vietnam has an estimated 6 million Catholics, the second highest number in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.
Benedict told the ambassadors he was particularly in favor of supporting dialogue to end conflicts, and recalled his own experience growing up in wartime Germany.
"For my part, I come from a country where peace and fraternity are dear to the heart of all the people," he said, "notably for those who like me knew war and the separation of brothers from one nation for the sake of devastating and inhuman ideologies that, under the cover of dreams and illusion, weighed like a yoke of oppression on men."
John Paul normally used his annual speeches to the Vatican diplomatic corps to make specific reference to areas of concern. In recent years, he also spoke out about terrorism and addressing its root causes.
Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, a frequent diplomatic troubleshooter for John Paul, told the Telepace Catholic broadcaster he thought it odd that Benedict didn't mention any specific conflicts or countries in his discourse — other than his reference to his native Germany.