VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - A trip by Pope Francis to North Korea is “a dream that can be realized” and would be a gigantic step toward peace on the Korean peninsula, a senior South Korean bishop said on Thursday.
The bishop, Lazarus You Heung-sik of Daejeon, spoke ahead of a meeting next week in the Vatican between Francis and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who will be carrying an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to visit Pyongyang.
“If the pope goes there, it will be a gigantic step, a qualitative step for the Korean peninsula, for its pacification,” said You, who was in Rome for a meeting of bishops from around the world known as a synod.
“North Korea could enter the world community as a normal country. I know how much the pope, on various occasions, has called for pacification on the Korean peninsula,” You told a news conference.
Kim told Moon of his wish to meet the pope during a meeting last month, South Korea’s presidential office said on Tuesday. [L4N1WP2AI] The pope is expected to visit Japan next year.
Moon, who will be on a tour of Europe, will meet the pope on Oct. 18. The day before, Moon will attend a special “Mass for Peace” on the Korean peninsula in St. Peter’s Basilica.
“I think the pope will now listen to my president about the situation,” the bishop told reporters on the sidelines of the news conference.
You, who said he has entered North Korea on humanitarian visits, said there were no priests there and the country needed religious freedom.
“I am not talking about conditions (for the visit). But before you do something you have to do the groundwork. When the groundwork is done, the pope can go,” he said.
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, no open religious activity is allowed.
North Korea, which Church officials estimated had a Catholic community of about 55,000 just before the 1950-53 Korean War, does not allow priests to be permanently stationed in the country.
Information about how many Catholics are still in North Korea is scarce. Religious agencies have said they number in the few hundreds to about 4,000.
“A seed grows,” the bishop said about a possible papal visit to the north. “We need to pray and we will see what God wants. I am convinced that when that day comes it will be a dream that can be realized.”
The two Koreas have held three summits this year. Kim held an unprecedented summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in June, and pledged to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
“Last year, everybody was talking about war in the North. This year the situation has changed 180 degrees .. I think that North Korea is ready to open up, renounce nuclear weapons and build a new country,” he said.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Richard Balmforth