By Philip Pullella
NUR-SULTAN (Reuters) -Pope Francis said on Tuesday he was willing to go to China at any time but had “no news” to offer over speculation he might meet Chinese President Xi Jinping while both are in Kazakhstan.
Francis arrived in Kazakhstan after a six-hour flight from Rome at the start of a three-day trip to attend a peace meeting of world religious leaders.
Francis, who suffers from a knee ailment, for the first time on his trips used a finger ramp to exit the plane and enter the terminal on a wheelchair.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev greeted the pope briefly at the airport before the pope travelled in a small white car to the gleaming marble presidential palace for a private meeting with the head of state.
Speaking to reporters accompanying him on his flight to the central Asian republic, Francis was asked whether he might meet Xi in its capital Nur-Sultan, where both men will be on Wednesday.
“I don’t have any news about that,” the pope replied, without elaborating.
Asked if he was ready to go to China, Francis responded: “I am always ready to go to China”.
Francis used a cane to walk around the plane greeting reporters as he usually does on such trips. He appeared in pain by the time he returned to his own seat in the front section of the aircraft.
The pope has tried to ease the historically poor relations between the Holy See and China, and told Reuters in an interview in July that he hoped to renew a secret and contested agreement on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in China.
Xi is visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan from Sept. 14-16 in his first official trip to a foreign nation since China all but shut its borders due to COVID-19. He is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan.
The war in Ukraine is casting a long shadow on the pope’s visit to Kazakhstan and the international religious meeting, which is due to be attended by more than 100 delegations from about 50 countries.
In an address to the Kazakh government and the diplomatic corps on Tuesday night, Francis spoke of “the senseless and tragic war that broke out with the invasion of Ukraine”.
He also spoke of the need to ease Cold War-style confrontations and rhetoric, saying “Now is the time to stop intensifying rivalries and reinforcing opposing blocs.”
Francis will be in Kazakhstan until Thursday for the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, a gathering marked by the conspicuous absence of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who supports the war in Ukraine.
Kirill had been expected to attend the congress, and Francis had several times said he was willing to talk to him.
There are only about 125,000 Catholics among the 19 million population of the vast Central Asian country, which is a former Soviet Republic. About 70% of the Kazakhs are Muslim and about 26% Orthodox Christians.
Francis will say a Mass for the tiny Catholic community on Wednesday afternoon.
(Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in AlmatyEditing by Raissa Kasolowsky)