Pope Francis greets journalists on board the papal flight to Seoul, South Korea, on Aug. 13, 2014. / Daniel Dal Zennaro, European Pressphoto Agency
BEIJING - Pope Francis' telegram of goodwill to Chinese leaders as he flew over their airspace was quickly followed Thursday by a reminder of the restrictions that Catholics face in the country.
About half of the 100 Chinese set to attend a Catholic youth event in South Korea during the pontiff's five-day visit were barred from traveling, Heo Young-yeop, spokesman for the committee organizing the papal visit, told reporters.
"I believe some of the Chinese youth have arrived, but, as far as we know, not all of them could make it â?¦ because of the complicated situation within China," Heo was quoted as saying on the committee's website.
"We are extremely sad about that," he said, declining to give additional details for fear of endangering the safety of those barred.
Some of the Chinese Catholics were stopped at airports and prevented from passing through customs, Ren Dahai, director of a Catholic charity in north Hebei province, told Reuters.
"This seems to me like it's dependent on the local government and the ideas and practices of local officials," he said. "Some places will be stricter, while some will be looser."
Early Thursday, Francis - who landed in Seoul on Thursday for a five-day visit to South Korea - sent a telegram of greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping as his plane flew over northeastern China, a custom popes do with any country they fly over in accordance with Vatican protocol.
"Upon entering Chinese airspace, I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation," the telegram said.
In a faxed statement, China's Foreign Ministry said it had noted the pope's statement and remained committed to improving ties.
"We are willing to continue to make efforts with the Vatican to enter into a constructive dialogue and advance the cause of improving bilateral relations," it said.
The flight itself marked a minor breakthrough, as China refused to allow John Paul II's plane to cross its airspace en route to Seoul in 1989. No pope has ever visited China.
In South Korea on Thursday, Francis called for renewed efforts to forge peace on the war-divided Korean Peninsula and for both sides to avoid "fruitless" criticisms and shows of force.
"Korea's quest for peace is a cause close to our hearts, for it affects the stability of the entire area and indeed of our whole war-weary world," he said. "May all of us dedicate these days to peace: to praying for it and deepening our resolve to achieve it."
Contributing: The Associated Press
Read the original story: Chinese youth barred from traveling to Korea papal event