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ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – On his return flight from Kazakhstan, Pope Francis said that when it comes to China and issues such as the current trial against Cardinal Joseph Zen, the church is playing the long game with patience and dialogue.

He also spoke about the morality of sending weapons to Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia, announced plans to visit Bahrain, and hit back against criticism from a bishop in Kazakhstan who argued that the high-profile inter-faith congress he attended negated the role of the Catholic Church as the true path of salvation.

Asked by Crux whether the trial against Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, constitutes a violation of religious freedom, the pope did not respond directly, but told journalists on board the papal plane: “To understand China takes a century, and we won’t see a century.”

“The Chinese mentality is a rich mentality, and when it becomes a little sick, it loses its richness,” he said, saying the Vatican, in its attempt to better understand the Chinese, has “chosen the way of dialogue.”

He referred to a bilateral commission tasked with carrying forward this dialogue between the Holy See and China, saying the process is slow “because the Chinese rhythm is slow,” but steps are being made.

“It’s not easy to understand the Chinese mentality, but it must be respected. I always respect it, and here in the Vatican there was a commission for dialogue that is going well,” he said, saying he refrains from “defining” China as either democratic or undemocratic.

“I don’t like it, because it’s such a complex country. It’s true, there are things we don’t see as democratic, and it’s true,” he said, adding that Zen “is an elderly man who … says what he thinks.”

“We see that there are limitations there,” he said, and reiterated the importance of dialogue, saying when this path is chosen, “many things are clarified, not just things of the church, but things of other sectors.”

China, he said, is “gigantic,” and to understand China “is something gigantic, it requires a lot of patience, but we must go forward with dialogue.”

Zen, 90, was arrested along with five others in May on charges of subversion for failing to properly register the 612 humanitarian organization, which supported pro-democracy protests sparked by the implementation in Hong Kong of a national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020 that bans acts described as terrorism, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces.

After his arrest, Zen – a known critic of Pope Francis’s approach to China and the Vatican’s controversial agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops – was released on bail. His trial is set to begin Sept. 19.

After Zen’s arrest, the Vatican said it is aware of his detainment and is following the situation, which has prompted further concerns about the state of democracy in Hong Kong, and religious freedom in China generally.

Pope Francis was in Kazakhstan Sept. 13-15 to attend the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. While there, Chinese President Xi Jinping also made a state visit, stopping in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan Wednesday.

Asked whether he met with Jinping while the two were in town together, Pope Francis said he was aware of the president’s visit, but that they did not meet.

In the 45-minute press conference, the pope also spoke about the morality of sending weapons to Ukraine, saying, “This is a political decision, which can be morally accepted if it is done with the conditions of morality.”

However, he said the decision can also be immoral if “it is done with the intention to provoke further war or to sell arms or throw away the weapons that are no longer used.”

“To defend oneself is not only a right, but it’s also an act of love for the homeland. If someone doesn’t defend something, they don’t love it,” he said, repeating his past insistence that further reflection is needed on the topic of just war.

When it comes to those who start war, “it’s always difficult to understand” them, he said, and, while refraining from specifically mentioning Russia in the Ukraine conflict, said, “It seems that the first step was done there, by that part.”

“We must give the opportunity for dialogue to everyone, everyone, because there is always a chance that with dialogue, things will change, that another point of view, another perspective will be offered, but I don’t exclude dialogue with any country that is in war, even the aggressor,” he said.

He also spoke of upcoming travel plans, including the rescheduling of his trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, which was originally scheduled for July but was postponed due to the pope’s ongoing osteoarthritis of the knee, which has often confined him to a wheelchair, and which makes international travel difficult.

The trip, which Francis has wanted to make for years, was to be an ecumenical visit done together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, both of whom also postponed their own visits when the pope backed out.

Pope Francis told journalists that he recently spoke to both of those leaders by Zoom to discuss a potential date for rescheduling the highly anticipated trip, and that they are currently considering a date “in February.”

He also referred to a trip that he will make in November, which Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni later said was a trip that “is being studied,” to Bahrain.

Francis also hit back against criticism of the interfaith congress he attended that was issued by an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese of Astana in Kazakhstan, Bishop Athanasius Schneider.

A known papal critic who has taken issue with several of Francis’s decisions – including his restriction of the Traditional Latin Mass, his apparent cautious opening of communion to some divorced and remarried couples, and his remarks apparently supporting same-sex civil unions – Schneider described the congress as “a supermarket of religions” and “a show” that equates Catholicism with other religious traditions and therefore negates it as the “only path to salvation.”

Asked about how to evangelize in Kazakhstan, where 70 percent of the population adheres to Islam, Francis said he was happy to see the joy and enthusiasm of Kazakh Catholics, and that “coexistence with the Muslims is something they are working on a lot.”

Referring to the congress, he said he was told that “someone criticized it” on grounds that it “foments relativism.”

“But there is no relativism,” he said, saying each representative at the congress “said their part, they respected the position of the others, and they dialogued as brothers.” If there is no dialogue, he said, “there is either ignorance or war.”

“Many times, these ‘wars’ among religions are caused by a lack of awareness,” he said, insisting: “This is not relativism; I don’t renounce my faith if I speak with the faith of someone else, rather, I make my faith known because I speak to others, and I listen to them.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen