Pope Francis arrives in South Korea on first Asia trip

Pope Francis walks down the stairs of his plane upon his arrival in Seoul on August 14, 2014 as...

Pope Francis walks down the stairs of his plane upon his arrival in Seoul on August 14, 2014 as South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye (C) awaits to greet him. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO

Philip Pullella and Ju-min Park, Reuters

, Last Updated: 1:14 AM ET

SEOUL - Pope Francis sent an unprecedented message of good will to China on Thursday before touching down in Seoul, but the first papal trip to Asia in 15 years got off to a shaky start with the news some Chinese had been barred from joining a youth celebration.

About half of more than 100 Chinese who had planned to attend an Asian Youth Day event during the pope's visit are unable to attend due to "a complicated situation inside China", Heo Young-yeop, spokesman for the Committee for the Papal Visit to Korea, told reporters.

He declined to give further details, citing their safety. Another organiser, who declined to be identified, said some of the would-be attendees had been arrested by Chinese authorities.

Beijing rejects Vatican authority over its Catholics.

China's Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comments either on the Pope's good will message or the Chinese who were barred from attending the youth event.

As the pope's plane approached South Korean airspace off the west of the peninsula, North Korea test fired three short-range rockets into the sea off its east coast, according to South Korea's defence ministry.

The test site was hundreds of kilometres away from the pope's plane.

The North has tested an unprecedented number of rockets and missiles this year and has in recent weeks said the launches were in retaliation to U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled to start on Monday.

Pyongyang often stages such tests when rival South Korea is in the global spotlight, in what is seen as a means to grab a share of the attention.

The Argentine pope will spend five days in South Korea, meeting some of the country's five million Catholics on the first trip by a pontiff to Asia since 1999, but much of the attention will be on the Vatican's relations with China.

"Upon entering Chinese air space, I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens and I invoke the divine blessing of peace and well-being upon the nation," he said in a radio message to President Xi Jinping.

It was the first time a pope had been allowed to fly over China on Asian tours. His predecessor John Paul II had to avoid Chinese airspace because of the fraught relations between Beijing and the Vatican.

The Vatican has had no formal relations with China since shortly after the Communist Party took power in 1949. The Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities: an "official" Church known as the "Patriotic Association" answerable to the Party, and an underground Church that swears allegiance only to the pope in Rome.

NORTH KOREA CRACKDOWN

North Korea had turned down an invitation from the South Korean Catholic church for members of its state-run Korean Catholic Association to attend a papal mass on Monday in Seoul, citing the start of the joint U.S.-South Korean military drills.

The two Koreas have been divided since the 1950-53 Korean war, which left millions of families separated.

Missionaries and aid groups have described a crackdown by Chinese authorities on Christian charity groups near its border with North Korea in recent months. The sweep along the frontier is believed to be aimed at closing off support to North Koreans who flee persecution and poverty in their homeland and illegally enter China before going on to other nations, usually ending up in South Korea.

China is North Korea's main ally.

The pope was greeted in a subdued event at a Seoul air base by South Korean President Park Geun-hye with a delegation of South Korean Catholics including two North Korean defectors, as well as relatives of victims of the Sewol ferry that capsized in April, killing about 300 people, most of them school children.

"The disaster is heart-breaking, I have not forgotten the victims," South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted Pope Francis as saying to members of the welcome delegation.

"Peace on the Korean peninsula has always had place in my heart," he said.

The visit is Francis' third international trip since his election in March 2013.


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