By Philip Pullella
ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) - Pope Francis acknowledged on Monday that his recent comments on Russia, seen by Ukraine as praise for imperialism, were badly phrased and said his intention was to remind young Russians of a great cultural heritage and not a political one.
Speaking to reporters aboard the plane returning from Mongolia, Francis also said he wanted to assure China, with which the Vatican has difficult relations, that the Catholic Church has no ulterior motives and should not be seen as a foreign power.
"I was not thinking of imperialism when I said that," Francis said about his comments last month.
In unscripted remarks to young Russian Catholics in a video conference on Aug. 25, Francis spoke of past tsars Peter I and Catherine II - both of whom expanded Russian territory - and told his listeners they were the heirs of the "great Russian empire".
The comments caused an uproar in Ukraine because Russian President Vladimir Putin has invoked the legacies of the two Russian monarchs in justifying his invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of its territory.
They were welcomed by the Kremlin, which praised the pope for his knowledge of Russian history.
"Maybe it wasn't the best way of putting it, but in speaking of the great Russia, I was thinking not so much geographically but culturally," Francis said, mentioning Russian literary icon Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of his favourite authors.
"It was an off-the-cuff comment that came to mind because I studied it (Russian history) in school," he said, explaining why he mentioned Peter and Catherine.
"Russian culture is of such beauty, such profoundness. It should not be cancelled because of political problems. There were dark political years in Russia but the heritage is there, available to all," he said.
Francis was asked about China, which was in the backdrop of his trip to Mongolia.
At a Mass on Sunday, in his latest overture to the leaders of the communist country to ease restrictions on religion, Francis called its citizens a "noble" people and asking its Catholics to be "good Christians and good citizens".
CHURCH NOT A FOREIGN POWER
With regard to Vatican-China relations, Francis said: "I think we have to move forward in the religious aspect in order to understand each other better, so that Chinese citizens do not think the Church does not accept their culture and their values and (do not think) that the Church represents another foreign power."
Beijing has been following a policy of "Sinicisation" of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party.
A 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops has been tenuous at best, with the Vatican complaining that Beijing has violated it several times.
"Relations with China are very respectful. Personally I have great admiration for the Chinese people," he said.
Catholics from communist-run Vietnam, which recently upgraded its relations with the Vatican, travelled to Mongolia to see the pope and said they wanted him to visit their country too.
Asked if he would visit Vietnam, Francis joked: "If I don't go surely John XXIV will go," he said, speculating on the possible name of a future pope.
"There certainly will be (a papal trip to Vietnam)," he said.
Francis, who uses and wheelchair and a cane, was coy about what trips we would make next year after a visit to Marseilles for a conference on immigration next month.
"Travelling is not as easy as it was at the beginning (of his papacy in 2013)," he said.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella)