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Pope to fly over China going to Korea, offering rare chance for greetings as Vatican eyes ties

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Pope Francis blesses a child during the weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (The Associated Press)

Pope Francis' upcoming trip to South Korea will provide him with an unusual opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese leadership: His plane is due to fly through Chinese airspace, and Vatican protocol calls for the pope to send greetings to leaders of all the countries he flies over.

When St. John Paul II last visited South Korea in 1989, China refused to let his plane fly overhead. Instead, the Alitalia charter flew via Russian airspace, providing John Paul with an unprecedented opportunity to send radio greetings to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in which he said he hoped to visit.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Wednesday he didn't know what Francis' Chinese greetings would entail. But he confirmed the Aug. 13-14 flight plan involved flying over China.