SEOUL — Pope Francis arrived Thursday in South Korea with peace on his mind.
He called for “reconciliation and stability” for a divided Korean peninsula, urged stability in a “war-weary world,” and devoted a moment of silent prayer to a video journalist killed Wednesday on the Gaza Strip.
The pontiff, who is visiting South Korea through Aug. 18, is making his first trip to Asia and the third overseas journey of his papacy, following outings to Brazil and the Middle East.
Korea is divided between north and south as a result of a 1953 armistice that never officially ended a bloody three-year war. As Korean President Park Geun-hye told the pope during a meeting Thursday at Seoul’s presidential palace, the war still “casts a shadow” over the country, dividing not only the peninsula but “so many Korean families.”
Korea is an ideal setting for Francis to make his case, building on a bout of recent activism regarding conflicts in Iraq, Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, and other global hotspots.
In a speech to government officials and diplomats later Thursday , Francis said he was aware the Korean peninsula “has been tested through the years by violence, persecution and war.”
He said he wanted to express support for “efforts in favor of reconciliation and stability.”
The pontiff spoke in English, the first time he’s delivered a public address in the language.
“Korea’s quest for peace,” the pope said, “is a cause dear to our hearts” — in part, he added, because “it affects the stability of the entire region, and indeed of our whole war-weary world.”
On another front, Francis offered another demonstration of his ecological sensitivity by asking the Korean church to promote “responsible stewardship of the natural environment.”
Francis asked Koreans to show “special concern for the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice,” and to be a “leader in the globalization of solidarity.”
Aboard the papal plane, Francis displayed his sensitivity to the human cost of violence by requesting a moment of silent prayer for Simone Camilli, an Associated Press video journalist killed Wednesday while covering the fighting in Gaza.
Francis invited journalists traveling with him to “always present a message of peace, words of peace,” adding that what’s happening now around the world is “ugly.”
Prior to Francis’s departure, the Vatican released a letter the pope dispatched Aug. 9 to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterating his concern over Iraq.
“The violent attacks that are sweeping across Northern Iraq,” the pope wrote, “cannot but awaken the consciences of all men and women of goodwill to concrete acts of solidarity by protecting those affected or threatened by violence and assuring the necessary and urgent assistance for the many displaced people as well as their safe return to their cities and their homes.”
One striking aspect of the pope’s message was the absence of any reference to the current US airstrikes in Iraq. Given the Vatican’s history of explicitly condemning many American military interventions, the silence struck most observers as a sort of implicit consent.
Earlier this week two Vatican officials, the pope’s ambassador in Baghdad and his envoy to the UN in Geneva, voiced grudging approvals of the US strikes, calling them “necessary” and “probably unavoidable.”
South Korea is the first of three Asian nations Francis is scheduled to visit in the next six months, with a January visit to the Philippines and Sri Lanka already on his calendar.
During the 11-hour flight from Rome to Seoul, Francis confirmed his intention to come to the United States in September 2015 for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The pontiff made the remark while greeting reporters aboard the plane.
Even before arriving in South Korea, Francis made a small bit of history by becoming the first pope to fly over China, one of just a handful of nations with which the Vatican does not have diplomatic relations.
Rome is eager to improve ties with Beijing, in part to extend the Vatican’s reach as a voice of conscience and in part to improve the lot of China’s estimated 13 million Catholics, many of whom live a sort of underground faith because of their resistance to government controls.
In a brief telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Francis extended “best wishes” upon entering Chinese airspace and invoked “divine blessings of peace and well-being” upon the nation.