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In overture to China, pope sends greetings to a 'noble' people

By Philip Pullella

ULAANBAATAR (Reuters) - Pope Francis sent greetings to China on Sunday, calling its citizens a "noble" people and asking Catholics in China to be "good Christians and good citizens," in his latest overture to the communist country to ease restrictions on religion.

Francis made the unscripted comments at the end of a Mass in Mongolia's capital, calling up the former and current archbishops of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon and Archbishop Stephen Chow, to flank him as he spoke.

"These two brother bishops - the emeritus of Hong Kong and the current bishop of Hong Kong. I would like to take advantage of their presence to send a warm greeting to the noble Chinese people," he said in Italian.

"I wish the best for all the (Chinese) people, to go forward, to always progress. And to Chinese Catholics I ask to be good Christians and good citizens," he said.

Francis spoke at the end of an unprecedented event where he and just about the entire Catholic population of a country were in the same room. On his trip to Mongolia, which concludes on Monday, he is visiting a Catholic community that numbers just 1,450.

On Saturday, in words that appeared to be aimed at China rather than Mongolia, Francis said governments have nothing to fear from the Catholic Church because it has no political agenda.

Beijing has been following a policy of "Sinicisation" of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party.

A landmark 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops has been tenuous at best, with the Vatican complaining that Beijing has violated it several times.

The phrase used by the pope on Sunday - "good Christians and good citizens" - is one the Vatican uses frequently in trying to convince communist governments that giving Catholics more freedom would only help their countries' social and economic progression.

The Vatican has used the same phrase about Vietnam, which in July upgraded relations by allowing the Vatican to have a Resident Papal Representative in Hanoi.

The Vatican has asked China to allow a similar office in Beijing. Vatican officials hope that Vietnam's acceptance in July could help persuade Beijing to do the same, diplomats have told Reuters.

Chow, Hong Kong's top Catholic cleric, in April made the first visit to the Chinese capital by a bishop of the former British colony in nearly 30 years.

Chow, who will be a made a cardinal by the pope this month, told reporters at a papal event on Saturday that he hoped the Church in Hong Kong could be a "bridge Church" with mainland China.

Chow led a delegation to Mongolia of about 40 Catholics from Hong Kong, Chow and said the Catholic Church in Asia was growing and in a position to help Catholics from the East and the West better understand each other.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by William Mallard, David Evans and Frances Kerry)