SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, which has been condemned as one of the worst suppressors of religious freedom in the world, has invited Pope Francis to visit his country, South Korea’s government said Tuesday.
The invitation will be relayed by South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, a Roman Catholic, when he visits the Vatican for two days next week to seek the pope’s help in easing tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula, said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman of Mr. Moon.
Mr. Moon met with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, last month.
“If the pope visits Pyongyang, we will give him a rousing welcome,” Mr. Kim told Mr. Moon, according to Mr. Moon’s spokesman.
There was no immediate comment from the Vatican on whether Francis would accept the invitation, but it is considered highly unlikely.
No pontiff has ever visited North Korea, whose totalitarian government cracks down on religious activities, instead promoting a personality cult around Mr. Kim and his father and grandfather, who ruled the country as godlike figures.
Improbable as such a visit may sound, this is not the first time North Korea has tried to invite a pope.
In 1991, as the Soviet bloc began disintegrating, North Korea campaigned to invite Pope John Paul II to Pyongyang to help ease its deepening diplomatic isolation, according to a memoir by Thae Yong-ho, a North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016.
The government even found an older woman who still held on to her Catholic beliefs from the days before the Communists took over at the end of World War II. The woman, who still practiced her faith in secret, was taken to the Vatican to meet the pope, Mr. Thae said.
But the North eventually abandoned its campaign for fear that such a visit might fan religious zeal in the hermit nation, he added.
Francis has shown interest in helping build a lasting peace on the peninsula.
When he visited South Korea in 2014, Francis said he came here “thinking of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula.” North Korea fired three short-range rockets off its east coast shortly before the pope’s arrival. After the pope landed, it fired two more rockets.
Still, Francis called for forgiveness and renewed dialogue on the peninsula and for more humanitarian aid for North Korea.
“Peter asks the Lord: ‘If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ To which the Lord replies: ‘Not seven times, I tell you, but 70 times seven,’” the pope said in reference to decades of hostilities and mistrust that have divided Korea. “Unless we are prepared to do this, how can we honestly pray for peace and reconciliation?”
Such a message usually does not go down very well with conservative South Koreans, including right-wing Protestants who are some of the most vocal opponents of the Communist government in Pyongyang. These Protestant activists have burned Mr. Kim in effigy during outdoor rallies and released large balloons that spread anti-Kim leaflets over the North.
But Francis’ appeal has found a powerful supporter in Mr. Moon, who has dedicated his diplomacy to improving relations and helping resolve the crisis over the North’s nuclear weapons development.
Mr. Moon hopes that Francis might accept Mr. Kim’s invitation in a landmark moment for easing tensions on the peninsula. A visit would also signal a willingness by Mr. Kim to open his country.
But should the pope accept the offer, he would wade into a country widely accused of torturing and even executing the faithful.
“The North Korean government’s approach toward religion and belief is among the most hostile and repressive in the world,” the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its annual report this year. “Freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North Korea. The regime exerts absolute influence over the handful of state-controlled houses of worship permitted to exist, creating a facade of religious life in North Korea.”
In 2014, the United Nations’ commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea said Mr. Kim’s government considered the spread of Christianity “a particularly serious threat since it ideologically challenges the official personality cult.”
Jason Horowitz contributed reporting from Rome.