Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Pope Benedict tells China: open up to Christianity


OIES, Italy (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI urged China Tuesday to open up to Christianity as he visited the birthplace of a 19th century saint who died as a missionary there 100 years ago.

China's officially atheistic Communist Party forced Chinese Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, and the two sides have not restored formal relations. Many of the country's estimated 12 million Catholics worship in congregations outside the state-approved church and often are arrested or harassed.

"It is important for this great country to open itself to the Gospel," said Benedict, who has made the improvement of relations with China a priority of his papacy.

The pope sent a special letter to Catholics in China last year, praising the underground church, but also urging the faithful to reconcile with followers of the official church.

During a public prayer Sunday, the pope sent greetings to the Chinese people ahead of the Olympics and said he hoped the games would offer an example of coexistence among people from different countries.

On Tuesday, Benedict flew by helicopter to the remote hamlet of Oies, nestled in the Dolomite Alps in northeastern Italy, from where 130 years ago Joseph Freinademetz took off for China where he worked as a missionary until his death in 1908.

Benedict, who was accompanied by his elder brother Georg, visited an old farmhouse where Freinademetz grew up as one of 13 children. The home features a small museum with memorabilia from the missionary's life in China, including portraits of the saint depicting him with the pointed beard and round cap typical of Chinese culture in his time.

Freinademetz was proclaimed a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

Several thousand people had walked through fields and woods to reach the village and greet the pope, who is spending a two-week vacation at the seminary in the nearby town of Bressanone.

Addressing them in front of the house, Benedict noted the increasing importance of China in the world.

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