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.


UK Conservatives to pick final 2 contenders for prime minister

Updated 15 min 10 sec ago
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UK Conservatives to pick final 2 contenders for prime minister

  • Tory lawmakers will vote to eliminate two contenders from a four-strong field
  • All the candidates are vowing to lead Britain out of the European Union, a challenge that defeated outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May

LONDON: Britain’s governing Conservatives were set to pick two candidates Thursday who will square off to become the country’s next prime minister.
Tory lawmakers will vote to eliminate two contenders from a four-strong field that includes ex-foreign minister and London mayor Boris Johnson, current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
Johnson has a commanding lead after three rounds of voting that cut the list from an initial 10 contenders. The three others are battling to join him in a runoff to be decided by 160,000 Conservative Party members nationwide.
All the candidates are vowing to lead Britain out of the European Union, a challenge that defeated outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May. She quit as Conservative leader earlier this month after failing to win Parliament’s backing for her Brexit deal.
The winner of the contest, due to be announced the week of July 22, will become Conservative leader and prime minister.
Many in the party doubt that anyone can beat Johnson, a quick-witted, Latin-spouting extrovert admired for his ability to connect with voters, but mistrusted for his erratic performance, and record of inaccurate and sometimes offensive comments.
Hunt is considered an experienced and competent minister, but unexciting. Gove is the sharpest performer and could come out best in head-to-head debates with Johnson, his longstanding frenemy. The two men led the “leave” campaign Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum, but later fell out.
Javid, the son of Pakistani immigrants, says he offers a common-man alternative to private school-educated rivals like Johnson and Hunt, although he was a highly paid investment banker before entering politics.
Brexit, originally scheduled to take place on March 29, has been postponed twice amid political deadlock in London. The candidates differ on how they plan to end the impasse.
Johnson has won backing from the party’s die-hard Brexiteers by insisting the UK must leave the bloc on the rescheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a divorce deal to smooth the way.
Javid, like Johnson, says he would try to leave the EU without an agreement rather than delay Brexit beyond Oct. 31. Gove and Hunt both say they would seek another postponement if needed to secure a deal, but only for a short time.
Critics say none of the candidates’ plans is realistic.
The EU is adamant that it won’t reopen the Brexit agreement it struck with May’s government, which has been rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament. Many economists and businesses warn that leaving without a deal on divorce terms and future relations would cause economic turmoil as tariffs and other disruptions are imposed on trade between Britain and the EU.
UK Treasury chief Philip Hammond warned Thursday that a no-deal Brexit would put Britain’s prosperity at risk and leave the economy “permanently smaller.”
“The question to the candidates is not ‘What is your plan?’ but ‘What is your plan B?’ Hammond said in extracts from a speech he is giving later in the day.”