Pope Francis has issued his first appeal directed at Catholics in China, long the source of concern for his predecessor Benedict XVI.

Francis urged special prayers Wednesday for China's faithful that they may "live their daily lives in service to their country and their fellow citizens in a way consistent with the faith they profess."

The occasion was a feast day that is celebrated in particular in Shanghai.

China has an estimated 8 million to 12 million Catholics. Despite official requirements, around half worship in congregations outside the control of the officially sanctioned church.

The Communist Party ordered Catholics to cut ties with the Holy See in the 1950s, and persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom. Tensions remain, however, over appointments of bishops.