China Catholics cheer Pope Francis' South Korea visit

Aug 15, 2014: The faithful take part in a mass at the 400-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, China. (AP)

Aug 15, 2014: The faithful take part in a mass at the 400-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, China. (AP)

Chinese Catholics on Friday cheered Pope Francis' visit to neighboring South Korea, saying they hoped his trip to their region would help end the estrangement between Beijing and the Vatican.

However, China's entirely state-run media imposed a virtual news blackout on his visit, ensuring the public at large would know little about Francis' activities. In another sign of Beijing's continuing ambivalence toward relations with the Holy See, reports said officials were preventing some Chinese Catholics and clergy from taking part in the activities in South Korea under threat of reprisals.

In a promising sign, Francis' first visit to Asia included a first-ever papal flyover of Chinese airspace on Thursday, during which he sent a telegram expressing greetings and prayers to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people.

China's Foreign Ministry responded with a statement Thursday saying it remained committed to establishing a "constructive dialogue" and improving ties.

On Friday, Catholic laypeople and priests who flocked to mass at Beijing's oldest church said they felt closer to the pope. All expressed hopes for a papal visit in the not too-distant future.

"I believe this is a step forward in advancing communication," said Father Mathew Zhen Xuebin, secretary general of the Beijing diocese. "We have hope that one day the two countries of China and the Vatican will establish diplomatic ties and that the pope will be able to visit China."

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.

China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951 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.

Relations have been tense over Beijing's demand that it have the right to appoint bishops, even those unacceptable to the Vatican. The Holy See says that key prerogative belongs to it alone and the disagreement tops the list of those blocking reconciliation.

News of the pope's message went virtually unreported in the state-controlled media, although several people attending mass said they had read about it on the Internet in reports that were later taken down.

South Korean organizers of the pope's visit also expressed regret that some young Chinese Catholics had been prevented from traveling to South Korea to join in the festivities due to what they called the "complicated situation within China."

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 also been called home before Francis' arrival.

Zhen said he had no information about numbers of Chinese participants or any being blocked from traveling.

Parishioners at Beijing's weather-beaten 400-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception said they were following Francis' visit as best they could.

Maria Mian, a retired teacher in her 70s, said she felt his presence in Asia would give impetus to greater Beijing-Vatican dialogue, although she added: "Things will come along gradually."

Night watchman Xu Yong, 35, said he was hoping for some form of divine intervention.

"This is not something that men can solve on their own," Xu said. "We will need God's help."