North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will deliver the invitation when he meets the pope next week, a presidential official said Tuesday.
Kim said he will "ardently welcome the pope if he visits Pyongyang." Kim made the comments in September when Moon suggested during their summit in Pyongyang that Kim meet Francis, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said in a press briefing in Seoul.
Moon is set to make a stop at the Vatican on Oct. 17 and 18 during his nine-day trip to Europe, and will deliver the message from the North Korean leader to the pontiff, said the spokesman.
The president will seek a papal blessing and support for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and discuss ways for future cooperation with the Vatican, the spokesman said.
Greg Burke, the director of the Holy See's Press Office, said on Tuesday that Pope Francis will "receive in audience" Moon on Oct. 18 at 12 p.m., in a move widely seen as exceptional, especially during the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
The pope usually holds meetings with a visiting head of state at around 9:30 a.m. In May last year, Pope Francis held a 30-minute meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Vatican.
The Vatican's move sparked speculation that the pope wants to have longer than usual time for talks with Moon.
Burke also said Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin will preside at a "Mass for Peace" for the Korean Peninsula on Oct. 17 in Saint Peter's Basilica, in which Moon, a catholic, will participate. It is very rare for the Vatican to hold special mass for specific countries.
It remains unclear whether Pope Francis will accept the North Korea's invitation and travel to Pyongyang.
Last month, South Korean Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong accompanied Moon on his visit to Pyongyang and told the North Korean leader that he will tell the Vatican that the two Koreas are moving toward reconciliation and peace, the North Korean leader bowed politely and said "Yes, please."
On Tuesday, the archbishop said South Korea's Catholic church welcomed the North Korean leader's invitation of the pope and expressed hope that relations between the Vatican and North Korea will improve.
In 2014, Pope Francis visited South Korea and said Koreans should forgive each other "unreservedly" if they want peace and reconciliation on the divided peninsula.
The two Koreas have been separated for more than six decades following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
No Holy Father has ever visited North Korea, which is accused of suppressing religious freedom. North Korea boasts of full religious freedom for its 23 million people, but defectors testify to the contrary.
The North built two protestant churches and a Catholic cathedral in Pyongyang in the late 1980s and built a Russian Orthodox church in 2006.
Still, defectors say that the churches are for propaganda and open only when outside visitors attend services.
In 2014, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on North Korea said there was "an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."
North Korea continues to deal harshly with those who engage in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests, according to the 2017 religious freedom report by the U.S. State Department.
North Korea runs a massive cult of personality around its late founder Kim Il-sung and his late son Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un.
Thae Yong-ho, a former deputy ambassador at the North Korean Embassy in London, said in a memoir published after his defection to Seoul in 2016 that Kim Il-sung had sought to invite Pope John Paul II to North Korea, and Kim Jong-il, then the leader-in-waiting, was opposed to the idea out of concern that a visit would increase the number of genuine Christians in North Korea. (Yonhap)