VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis on Thursday received an invitation to visit North Korea and the pontiff indicated that he would consider making what would be a landmark trip to the hermit nation, according to South Korean officials.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in relayed the invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the pope verbally during a 35-minute meeting in the Vatican.
Any visit would be the first by a pope to the reclusive state which does not allow priests to be permanently stationed there. There is little information on how many of its citizens are Catholic, or how they practice their faith.
Kim told Moon, a Catholic, of his wish to meet the pontiff during a meeting last month and the South Korean leader announced before the trip that he would be relaying a message..
According to the president's office, Francis expressed his strong support for efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. Moon's office quoted the pope as telling Moon: "Do not stop, move forward. Do not be afraid."
Asked if Kim should send a formal invitation, Moon's office quoted the pope as responding to Moon: "your message is already sufficient but it would be good for him to send a formal invitation."
"I will definitely answer if I get the invitation, and I can go," the president's office quoted the pope as saying.
The pope is expected to be in Asia during a trip to Japan next year.
A Vatican statement made no mention of the verbal invitation from Kim.
It spoke only of "the promotion of dialogue and reconciliation between Koreans" and "the common commitment to fostering all useful initiatives to overcome the tensions that still exist in the Korean Peninsula, in order to usher in a new season of peace and development."
The two Koreas have held three summits this year. Kim also held an unprecedented summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in June, and promised to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Any trip to the North, however brief, could be contentious for the pope.
North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as it does not undermine the state. But beyond a handful of state-controlled places of worship, no open religious activity is allowed.
Aides close to the pope have said he is open to taking what they call first steps in places where the Church has been persecuted in the hope that the situation could improve.
Church officials estimate that North Korea had a Catholic community of about 55,000 just before the 1950-53 Korean War.
Religious agencies have estimated the number remaining from the few hundreds to about 4,000.