Pope Francis delivered a rare message of greetings early Thursday to China, which severed ties with the Vatican in 1951, as the pontiff's flight flew over Chinese airspace on its way to South Korea.
China allowed the pope's flight to fly through Chinese airspace as he embarks on a five-day visit to South Korea. In 1989, when then Pope John Paul II was on a visit to South Korea, China refused to do so.
It is Vatican protocol for the pope to send greetings to leaders when he flies over their airspace.
"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 on the nation," the pope said in a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China's ruling Communist Party rejects the Vatican's authority and has maintained its right to appoint bishops in China.
Wang Meixiu, a research fellow at the Institute of World Religion Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China's state-run Global Times newspaper on Thursday that the papal flight over Chinese airspace demonstrated the Chinese government's "courtesy."
"This shows the Chinese government may hope to resolve their issues," Wang was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
"Peace" is the main theme of the pontiff's visit to South Korea, the first by a pope since 1984.
The Korean Peninsula is the world's last remaining Cold War frontier with South and North Korea still technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an uneasy truce, not a permanent peace treaty. (Yonhap)