Pope Francis gets invite to North Korea, may consider landmark trip

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, relayed the invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to Pope Francis verbally during a 35-minute meeting in the Vatican. (ANSA via AP)
Updated 19 October 2018
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Pope Francis gets invite to North Korea, may consider landmark trip

  • Any visit would be the first by a pope to the reclusive state which does not allow priests to be permanently stationed there
  • North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as it does not undermine the state

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Thursday received an invitation to visit North Korea and the pontiff indicated he would consider making what would be a landmark trip to a nation known for severe restrictions on religious practice, according to South Korean officials. South Korean President Moon Jae-in relayed the invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the pope verbally during a 35-minute meeting in the Vatican.
Any visit would be the first by a pope to the reclusive state which does not allow priests to be permanently stationed there. There is little information on how many of its citizens are Catholic, or how they practice their faith.
North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as it does not undermine the state.
But beyond a handful of state-controlled places of worship — including a Catholic church in the capital of Pyongyang — no open religious activity is allowed and the authorities have repeatedly jailed foreign missionaries.
Kim told Moon, a Catholic, of his wish to meet the pontiff during a meeting last month and the South Korean leader announced before the trip that he would be relaying a message.
According to the president’s office, Francis expressed his strong support for efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. Moon’s office quoted the pope as telling Moon: “Do not stop, move forward. Do not be afraid.”
Asked if Kim should send a formal invitation, Moon’s office quoted the pope as responding to Moon: “your message is already sufficient but it would be good for him to send a formal invitation.”
“I will definitely answer if I get the invitation, and I can go,” the president’s office quoted the pope as saying.
A meeting with Pope Francis would be the latest in a string of major diplomatic meetings for Kim Jong Un this year.
The two Koreas have held three summits this year. Kim also held an unprecedented summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June, where the leaders promised to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
The pope is expected to visit neighboring Japan next year and the proposed North Korea visit comes as China improves relations with the Holy See.
A deal signed in September gives the Vatican a long-sought say in the choice of bishops in China, and for the first time, Beijing allowed two bishops to attend a Vatican meeting, where they invited the pope to visit China.
A Vatican statement made no mention of the verbal invitation from North Korea’s Kim.
It spoke only of “the promotion of dialogue and reconciliation between Koreans” and “the common commitment to fostering all useful initiatives to overcome the tensions that still exist in the Korean Peninsula, in order to usher in a new season of peace and development.”
Any trip to the North, however brief, could be contentious for the pope, given what the United Nations says is a record of gross and systematic human rights abuses.
Aides close to the pope have said he is open to taking what they call first steps in places where the Church has been persecuted in the hope that the situation could improve.
Church officials estimate that North Korea had a Catholic community of about 55,000 just before the 1950-53 Korean War.
Religious agencies have estimated the number remaining from the few hundreds to about 4,000.
Priests from the South occasionally visit, usually accompanying aid deliveries or humanitarian projects.


At least three dead in multiple shooting in Utrecht, police hunting Turkish-born man

Updated 1 min 51 sec ago
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At least three dead in multiple shooting in Utrecht, police hunting Turkish-born man

  • Police are not ruling out terrorism as a possible motive
  • ‘Threat level has gone to 5, exclusively for the Utrecht province’

DUBAI: At least three people have been killed and nine other injured in a shooting incident in Utrecht, in The Netherlands on Monday morning.

Dutch security forces were hunting for a 37-year-old Turkish man in connection with the incident, in what authorities said appeared to be a terrorist attack. The city's mayor confirmed the death of three people on Monday afternoon.

"At this stage, we can confirm three deaths and nine wounded, three of them seriously," Utrecht Mayor Jan van Zanen said in a video statement on Twitter.

"We are working on the principle that it was a terrorist attack," he added.

Police forces walk near a tram at the 24 Oktoberplace in Utrecht, on March 18, 2019 where a shooting took place. (AFP/ANP)

Dozens of armed police plus canine units later surrounded a building a few hundred metres away, an AFP reporter at the scene said, but it was not clear if the gunman was inside.

Police said they believed a red Renault Clio had been carjacked around the time of the shooting and had been found abandoned later.

The Utrecht municipality said it advised "everyone to stay indoors until more is known, new incidents are not excluded," but this was withdrawn at around 4:30pm local time. The local hospital said it had set up a crisis centre. Tram traffic in the area was halted.

Emergency services stand at the 24 Oktoberplace in Utrecht, on March 18, 2019 where a shooting took place. (AFP)

Authorities raised the terrorism threat to its highest level in Utrecht province, schools were told to shut their doors and paramilitary police increased security at airports and other vital infrastructure, and also at mosques.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte convened crisis talks, saying he was deeply concerned about the incident.

Utrecht Police tweeted an image of a man named Gökmen Tanis, asking people for information on him in connection with the incident — but warned members of the public not to approach him.

The main counterterrorism unit in The Netherlands, the  National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV), told the Dutch public broadcaster that the incident had all the characteristics of a terrorist attack.

Counter-terrorism forces have surrounded a building where the gunman may be located, local broadcaster NOS News reported.

There was gunfire at several locations in the city, the Dutch national counter-terrorism chief said.

“Shooting took place this morning at several locations in Utrecht,” Dutch anti-terror coordinator Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg told a news conference in The Hague. “A major police operation is under way to arrest the gunman.”

Aalbersberg said in a statement that the “threat level has gone to 5, exclusively for the Utrecht province,” referring to the highest level. 

“The culprit is still on the run. A terror motive cannot be excluded,” he said in a Twitter message. He called on citizens to closely follow the indications of the local police. 

Police spokesman Bernhard Jens did not exclude more people might be involved. 

“We want to try to catch the person responsible as soon as possible,” Jens said.

A hotline to address queries about the situation. The Netherlands has one of the strictest gun laws and ownership is limited to law enforcement, hunters and target shooters.

Local media reports have said counter-terrorism police were seen at the scene.

“Shooting incident... Several injured people reported. Assistance started,” the Utrecht police Twitter account said. “It is a shooting incident in a tram. Several trauma helicopters have been deployed to provide help.”

The 24 Oktoberplein is a busy Utrecht traffic junction, with a tram stop. Tram traffic was temporarily stopped due to the incident, but the trams are currently running again between Zuilenstein, Nieuwegein and IJsselstein.

(With AFP and Reuters)