HAEMI, South Korea — Pope Francis made his strongest gesture yet to reach out to China on Sunday, saying he wants to improve relations and insisting that the Catholic Church isn’t coming in as a “conqueror” but is rather a partner in dialogue.

Francis outlined his priorities for the Catholic Church in Asia during a meeting of about 80 of the region’s bishops, urging them to engage with people of different cultures empathetically.

Search photos available for purchase: Photo Store →

“In this spirit of openness to others, I earnestly hope that those countries of your continent with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all,” he said.

Then deviating from his text, he added: “I’m not talking here only about a political dialogue, but about a fraternal dialogue. These Christians aren’t coming as conquerors, they aren’t trying to take away our identity.” He said the important thing was to “walk together.”

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope’s remarks were “obviously a sign of goodwill for dialogue” with China as well as the other countries in Asia with which the Vatican doesn’t have diplomatic relations: North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Bhutan and Brunei. “This offer of the pope for dialogue is to all these lands and not just one, even if China is the biggest,” he said.

He acknowledged that Francis has so far refrained from making any outwardly political statement about China, which counts some 12 million Catholics, but that the speech was a clear affirmation of a desire for dialogue.