NORTH KOREA has invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang, saying the religious leader would be “ardently welcomed”, South Korea’s presidency said on Tuesday.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be extending the invitation on behalf of his counterpart Kim Jong-un during the former’s visit to the Vatican from Oct 17 to 18.
“During the meeting with Pope Francis, he (Moon) will relay the message from chairman Kim Jong Un that he would ardently welcome the pope if he visits Pyongyang,” Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, told reporters, as quoted by the AFP.
Declining to comment on a possible papal trip to Pyongyang, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said: “let’s wait for the invitation to arrive.”
Moon will be in Europe from Oct 13 to 21 with stops in France, Italy and Denmark as well as the Vatican.
The South Korean president, who is scheduled to attend a “peace mass” for the Korean peninsula in Saint Peter’s on Oct 17, has pushed rapprochement with Kim, meeting him three times in the last year.
During the latest visit to Pyongyang last month, Moon was accompanied by South Korean Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong.
During talks with the archbishop, Kim urged him to let the Vatican know his intention to build peace, Moon’s spokesman said.
The young leader of the isolated, impoverished but nuclear-armed North has made a series of reconciliatory gestures this year, including a landmark summit with US President Donald Trump in June.
All religious activity in North Korea is subject to extremely tight restrictions and completely banned outside of state-sanctioned institution, despite religious freedom being enshrined in the constitution.
Prior to the division of North and South Korea in the early 20th century, Pyongyang was home to a thriving Christian community, earning it the title of “Jerusalem of the East”.
The North’s late founding father Kim Il Sung, who is the current leader’s grandfather, eradicated the practice of the faith with executions and labour camps as it was viewed as a threat to his authoritarian rule.
However, Catholic organisations have been allowed to run aid projects in the impoverished North, but the country has not had any direct relations with the Vatican.
In 2014, Pope held a special mass in Seoul to pray for the reunification of the two Koreas.