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Pope Francis waves as he boards his plane to leave for his pastoral visit to South Korea, at the Fiumicino airport in Rome August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

(reuters_tickers)

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) - Pope Francis sent a telegram of greeting to China's President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people as he flew over the country whose communist government does not allow Catholics to recognise his authority.

The pope, on his way to South Korea for a five-day visit, always sends telegrams to the leaders of countries as he passes through their airspace. The routine messages rarely make news, but this time there was expectation for what the pope would say to China.

"Upon entering Chinese air space, I extend my best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke divine blessings of peace and well being upon the nation," the pope said in his telegram.

The fact that the pope was allowed to cross Chinese airspace at all was seen as a positive if small, step forward, in the often-fraught relations between the Vatican and China. Pope John Paul II had to skirt Chinese airspace in his tours of Asia.

The Vatican has had no formal relations with China since shortly after the Communist party took power in 1949. The Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities: an "official" Church known as the "Patriotic Association" answerable to the party, and an underground Church that swears allegiance only to the pope in Rome.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Writing by Tony Munroe)

Reuters