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Pope Francis says he wants dialogue with China, religous freedom for its Catholics

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August 18, 2014: Pope Francis meets the media during an airborne press conference on his journey back to Rome from Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis says he wants dialogue with China and the only thing he asks in return is for the Catholic Church to be able to operate freely.

The pope told reporters the church "only asks to have freedom to do its work. No other conditions."

"The Holy See is open to all contacts," he said. "Because it has true esteem for the Chinese people."

In remarks to reporters returning to Rome from South Korea Monday, Francis recounted how he had a front-row seat to history when his Alitalia charter flew through Chinese airspace en route to South Korea.

Traditionally, popes send telegrams of greetings to heads of state when they enter their airspace.

This flight, however, marked the first time a pope had flown over China, which severed relations with the Holy See in 1951 when the Communists took over. Beijing refused to let St. John Paul II's plane fly overhead when he last visited the Far East, a 1989 trip to South Korea.

The Aug. 14 flight, then, gave Francis a rare opportunity to reach out to Chinese President Xi Jinping, albeit from 35,000 feet.

Francis recalled he was in the cockpit chatting with the pilots when the plane was about 10 minutes out of Chinese airspace and it was time to request permission from the air traffic control tower to continue on.

"I was a witness to this," Francis marveled. "And then the pilot said, `And now the telegram goes out."'

After witnessing that, the pope returned to his seat and prayed.

"I prayed so much for the beautiful and noble Chinese people," he said.

He said he would love to visit China: "Absolutely. Tomorrow!"

Francis sent Xi a similar telegram Monday heading back to Rome: "I wish to renew to your excellency and your fellow citizens the assurance of my best wishes, as I invoke divine blessings upon your land."

He also praised Koreans, especially the South Korean women who were used as sexual slaves by the Japanese military during World War II.

Francis spent a few minutes Monday greeting seven "comfort women" who attended his final Mass in Seoul's cathedral. Francis recalled that they were young girls when they were taken away, "exploited and enslaved." But he said: "Today these women were there because despite all that they suffered, they have their dignity. They showed their faces."

"The Korean people are a people who haven't lost their dignity: They are a people who were invaded, humiliated, underwent wars and now are divided," he said. "The suffering of division is great. I understand this and I pray that it ends."