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Pope challenges South, North Korea to seek peace

SEOUL — Pope Francis wrapped up his first trip to Asia on Monday by challenging Koreans — from the North and the South — to reject the ‘‘mindset of suspicion and confrontation’’ that cloud their relations and instead find new ways to forge peace on the war-divided peninsula.

The Mass of reconciliation at Seoul’s main cathedral, attended by South Korean President Park Geun-hye as well as some North Korean defectors, was the final event of a five-day trip that confirmed the importance of Asia for this papacy and for the Catholic Church as a whole, given the church is young and growing here whereas it is withering in traditionally Christian lands in Europe.

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Francis’ plea for peace came as the United States and South Korea began a joint military drill that North Korea said would result in a ‘‘merciless pre-emptive strike’’ against the allies.

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In a poignant moment at the start of the Mass on Monday, Francis bent down and greeted seven women, many sitting in wheelchairs, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. One gave him a pin of a butterfly — a symbol of the plight of these ‘‘comfort women’’ — which he immediately pinned to his vestments and wore throughout the Mass.

Francis said in his homily that reconciliation can be brought about only by forgiveness, even if it seems ‘‘impossible, impractical, and even at times repugnant.’’

‘‘Let us pray, then, for the emergence of new opportunities for dialogue, encounter and the resolution of differences, for continued generosity in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and for an ever greater recognition that all Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people,’’ he said.

In the Philippines, where the pope will visit in January, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, said Francis is offering ‘‘a friendly hand to the other countries, and assuring the countries we are not here for any worldly ambition, we are not here as conquerors, we are here as brothers and sisters.’’

Earlier Sunday, Francis made his strongest gesture yet to reach out to China, saying he wants to improve relations and insisting that the Catholic Church is a partner in dialogue.

Francis outlined his priorities for the church in Asia during a meeting of about 80 of the region’s bishops, urging them to engage with people of different cultures empathetically.

‘‘In this spirit of openness to others, I earnestly hope that those countries of your continent with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all,’’ he said.

Then deviating from his text, he added: ‘‘I’m not talking here only about a political dialogue, but about a fraternal dialogue. These Christians aren’t coming as conquerors.’’

He said the important consideration was to ‘‘walk together.’’

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope’s remarks were ‘‘obviously a sign of goodwill for dialogue’’ with China as well as the other countries in Asia with which the Vatican does not have diplomatic relations: North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Bhutan, and Brunei.

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