Pope reaches out to China at unprecedented concert

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict reached out to communist China on Wednesday at an unprecedented concert by its national orchestra in the Vatican that the Church hopes can help end decades of icy relations with Beijing.

The China Philharmonic Orchestra played Mozart’s “Requiem” and Chinese folk songs along with the Shanghai Opera House Chorus in the Vatican’s packed audience hall.

The German pope appeared happy at the concert of European religious music by the orchestra of an officially atheist state that has ridiculed the papacy in the past.

In his address at the end of the first part of the concert, the pope was full of praise for the Chinese people and held out the hope that music could succeed where diplomacy has failed.

“Music, and art in general, can serve as a privileged instrument for encounter and reciprocal knowledge and esteem between different populations and cultures…,” said the pope, who also managed a few words of thanks in Chinese.

Some diplomats say the long-term result of the unique concert could be similar to the so-called “ping-pong” diplomacy of the 1970, when the exchange of sports teams led to relations between Washington and Beijing.

Benedict has made improving relations with Beijing a major goal of his pontificate. He issued an open letter in June saying he sought to restore full diplomatic ties with China that were severed two years after the 1949 Communist takeover.

Catholics in China are split between those who belong to a state-backed Church and an underground Church whose members are loyal to the Vatican and it was to these steadfast faithful that the Pope sent a particular message.