Pope Francis told journalists on the papal plane Tuesday, September 13, that he is ready for the first papal trip to China.
In a conversation with reporters on the flight from Rome to Kazakhstan, the pope said: “I’m always ready to go to China.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Kazakhstan on September 14, midway through Pope Francis’ three-day trip to the Central Asian country.
Reuters reported that the pope said he did not “have any news” about the speculation that he might meet Xi during the trip.
The coinciding visits of Pope Francis and Xi come as the Holy See and China determine the renewal of a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops in China and a Catholic cardinal is preparing to stand trial in Hong Kong for his role in a pro-democracy legal fund.
A source in the Kazakh Parliament told CNA last week that “theoretically it is possible” that the pope and the president could meet during the trip. But such a meeting would be unprecedented.
Neighboring Kazakhstan and China have close ties with large-scale Chinese investments in the Central Asian country’s natural resources through its Belt and Road Initiative. Xi announced his plan for a “new silk road” in the Kazakh capital in 2013.
Notably, Kazakhstan borders China’s Xinjiang region, where the United Nations high commissioner has found that the Chinese government has committed serious human-rights violations.
Uyghur Muslims in China have faced torture, detention, and sexual violence, according to the UN’s Sept. 1 report, which found that persecution against the religious minority may be considered “crimes against humanity.”
Despite this, Kazakhstan has not granted political asylum to Xinjiang refugees.
Thousands of Kazakhs have family ties to Xinjiang, and more than 200,000 Uyghurs live in Kazakhstan. While Kazakhstan was home to some of the first vocal critics who testified to China’s brutal repression of Uyghurs in 2017, human-rights advocates have considered Kazakhstan a “hostile place for Xinjiang victims.”
Last year Kazakhstan barred Gene Bunin, the founder of the Xinjiang Victims Database, from entering the county. The Chinese foreign ministry also thanked the government of Kazakhstan for its “understanding and support for China’s position” in Xinjiang in 2019.
During his visit to Nur-Sultan, Xi will meet with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Sept. 15, one day after Pope Francis’ audience at the presidential palace.
The Chinese leader is expected to go on to meet with Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan later this week in Xi’s first trip outside of China since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.