Pope Francis expressed his “availability” to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping while both men were in Kazakhstan last week, but China declined, according to a Reuters report citing an unnamed Vatican official.
Pope Francis was in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital formerly known as Astana, Sept. 13–15 for an interreligious meeting, while Xi was in the same city to meet with Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, one day after the pope did.
According to Reuters, the source said the Vatican made “an expression of availability,” and the Chinese side said they “appreciated the gesture” but that there was no free time in Xi’s schedule.
A meeting of the two leaders would have been momentous; there has never been a meeting between a pope and a president of China. Pope Francis has said he is willing to visit China, saying on the flight from Rome to Kazakhstan on Sept. 13: “I’m always ready to go to China.”
The coinciding visits of Pope Francis and Xi also comes as the Holy See and China determine the renewal of a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops in China and a cardinal is preparing to stand trial in Hong Kong for his role in a pro-democracy legal fund.
Xi has been harshly criticized for overseeing the persecution of religious believers of many stripes in China, including Christians and the Uyghur Muslims of the Xinjiang region.
Kazakhstan and China, which are neighbors, 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. The Chinese leader met with Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan on Thursday as part of Xi’s first trip outside China since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pope Francis has said little about China’s human rights violations since the Vatican first entered into a provisional agreement with China in 2018. That deal was meant to unify the country’s 12 million Catholics, divided between the underground Church and the Communist-administered Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and clear a path for the appointment of bishops for Chinese dioceses. Despite the deal, persecution of the underground Church has continued and, according to some, intensified. That deal is expected to be renewed for another two years at the end of the month.