ROME — In a rarity that may suggest an opening in Vatican/China relations, Chinese TV networks dedicated airtime to the pope Saturday, reporting Francis’ words on a tragedy that rocked the coastal city of Tianjin, where a chemical plant exploded late last week leaving more than 100 people dead.
According to the Italian Catholic blog Il Sismografo, journalists living in Beijing described the reports on China’s state-sponsored television as an important gesture, with no memory of a similar broadcast dedicated to the pope in recent years.
“My thoughts go out, in this moment, to the people of the city of Tianjin, in northern China, where several explosions in an industrial area have caused numerous deaths and injuries, and extensive damage,” Francis said Saturday.
“Those who have lost their lives, as well as all those touched by this catastrophe, are in my prayers,” he added after his Angelus prayer at St. Peter’s Square in Rome marking the feast of the Assumption, which according to Catholic tradition, marks Mary’s ascent to heaven.
The plant exploded on Wednesday. Since then, 112 people have been reported dead, 700 hospitalized, and more than 100 are still missing.
The report of Francis’ words on Chinese television came just days after the government allowed the first bishop ordination in more than three years: On Aug. 4, Joseph Zhang Yinlin, 44, was ordained as coadjutor bishop of the Anyang diocese in Henan province.
The Vatican and the Chinese government cut diplomatic ties in the 1950s after the Communist Party rose to power in 1949.
Since then, and defying papal authority, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a government committee that runs Catholic churches in the country, has appointed its own priests and bishops, arguing that the Vatican’s control over this process is an affront to its sovereignty.
Zhang had the approval of both the Vatican and the Chinese authorities.
Despite the cooperative bishop ordination, Chinese President Xi Jinping has continued his crackdown on Christians: For example, state security forces are cutting down crosses from the spires, vaults, roofs, and wall arches of the 4,000 or so churches in Zhejiang province.
Last August, on his way to South Korea, Francis became the first pontiff to fly over Chinese airspace, dispatching a one-line telegram to Jinping that invoked “divine blessings of peace and well-being” on the nation. China’s foreign ministry acknowledged the message and express willingness from the government to work with the Vatican to improve bilateral relations.
To date, the Vatican has diplomatic relations with 180 of the 193 states recognized by the United Nations, and in a list that includes Vietnam, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, China is the biggest prize among the remaining holdouts.
On the way back from the South Korea trip, Francis told reporters that he would travel to China “tomorrow” if the opportunity presented itself.
The Vatican “is always open to being in contact, always, because it has a real esteem for the Chinese people,” the pope told reporters traveling with him. “The Church has simply requested the freedom for its ministry, to do its work with no other condition.”
Officials see relations with Beijing as crucial to projecting the Vatican’s role as a voice of conscience in world affairs, and also to protecting the roughly 13 million Catholics in China who occasionally suffer government harassment and persecution.