Pope Francis arrives in Kazakhstan, says ‘always ready’ for China visit

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Pope Francis said on Tuesday he was willing to go to China at any time but had “no news” to offer over speculation he might meet Chinese President Xi Jinping while both are in Kazakhstan.

Francis arrived in Kazakhstan after a six-hour flight from Rome at the start of a three-day trip to attend a peace meeting of world religious leaders.

Francis, who suffers from a knee ailment, for the first time on his trips used a finger ramp to exit the plane and enter the terminal on a wheelchair.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev greeted the pope briefly at the airport before the pope traveled in a small white car to the gleaming marble presidential palace for a private meeting with the head of state ahead of an address to government officials and the diplomatic corps.

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Speaking to reporters accompanying him on his flight to the central Asian republic, Francis was asked whether he might meet Xi in its capital Nur-Sultan, where both men will be on Wednesday.

“I don’t have any news about that,” the pope replied.

Asked if he was ready to go to China, Francis responded: “I am always ready to go to China.”

Francis used a cane to walk around the plane greeting reporters as he usually does on such trips. He appeared in pain by the time he returned to his own seat in the front section of the aircraft.

Francis has tried to ease the historically poor relations between the Holy See and China, and told Reuters in an interview in July that he hoped to renew a secret and contested agreement on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in China.

Xi is visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan from September 14-16 in his first official trip to a foreign nation since China all but shut its borders due to COVID-19. He is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan.

Francis will be in Kazakhstan until Thursday for a peace meeting of world religious leaders marked by the conspicuous absence of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who supports the war in Ukraine.

Kirill had been expected to attend the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, and Francis had several times said he was willing to talk to him.

The war in Ukraine is likely to cast a long shadow on the meeting, which is due to be attended by more than 100 delegations from about 50 countries.

Speaking at his Sunday address, Francis called his Kazakhstan trip “a pilgrimage of dialogue and peace” and in the very next line asked for prayers for the Ukrainian people, who he often has said were being “martyred.”

There are only about 125,000 Catholics among the 19 million population of the vast Central Asian country, which is a former Soviet Republic. About 70 percent of the Kazakhs are Muslim and about 26 percent Orthodox Christians.

Francis will say a Mass for the tiny Catholic community.

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