Nicole Winfield, Associated Press
VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis called Friday for more dialogue with Islam and offered an olive branch to China and other countries that don't have diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
In his first foreign policy address as pope, Francis delivered his remarks in Italian rather than the traditional French -- another indication that the Argentine-born pope is less than comfortable speaking languages other than Italian and his mother-tongue Spanish.
The occasion was an audience with ambassadors from the 180 countries that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, in which Francis explained he would work for peace, the poor and to "build bridges" between peoples. He noted that even his title "pontiff" means bridge-builder.
Francis said it was important to intensify dialogue among different religions "particularly dialogue with Islam" and to deepen the church's outreach to atheists.
The Vatican's relations with Islam hit several bumps during Pope Benedict XVI's papacy: He outraged Muslims with a 2006 speech quoting a Byzantine emperor as saying some of the Prophet Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman." And in 2011, the pre-eminent institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world, Cairo's Al-Azhar institute, froze dialogue with the Vatican to protest Benedict's call for greater protection of Christians in Egypt.
However, the Vatican said Friday that Al-Azhar's chief imam, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, sent a message of congratulations to Francis for his election and hoped for cooperation. That's a possible sign of a thaw in relations with the arrival of a pope whose interfaith outreach while archbishop of Buenos Aires has been well-documented.
Francis also said he wanted to begin a "journey" with countries that don't yet have diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
Benedict had made improving relations with China a priority, given the millions of faithful who belong to China's underground Catholic Church, but tensions remain particularly over the appointment of bishops. China insists on naming them, while the Vatican says only the pope can name bishops.
China congratulated Francis for his election but said establishing formal relations would depend on the Vatican cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan and ceasing activities Beijing considers as interference in its internal affairs -- a reference to bishops' appointments.
The Holy See also doesn't have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. The latest country added to its list of diplomatic recognition was South Sudan, just last month.