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Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 22, 2013.

Tony Gentile/The Associated Press

Pope Francis has expressed his great admiration for China and declined to criticize its longtime one-child policy in a bid to heal decades of estrangement between Beijing and the Holy See and open a new era of dialogue.

Francis expressed both respect for and awe of China, its culture and its role in the world in an interview with the Hong Kong online daily Asia Times. It was published Tuesday to mark Chinese New Year.

"For me China has always been a reference point of greatness," he was quoted as saying. "But more than a country, a great culture with inexhaustible wisdom."

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He said his view of dialogue is one in which neither side carves out a foothold, but that both decide to "walk together," respecting differences.

"Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me," he said. "No, dialogue means: Look, we have got to this point, I may or may not agree, but let us walk together."

China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951 after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope's authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s.

Relations have been tense over Beijing's demand that it have the right to appoint bishops, a right the Holy See says belongs to the pope alone.

Francis has continued the Vatican's outreach first launched by Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2007 wrote a letter to Chinese faithful urging them to unite under his authority. Francis has followed up with personal gestures, sending a telegram of greetings when he flew through Chinese airspace and writing a personal letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping – and getting a response.

Francis was asked about the impact of China's one-child policy, which the Catholic Church fervently opposed. Francis declined though to criticize it, saying mistakes may have been made but electing to sympathize with the children who must now bear the "exhausting" burden of caring for their parents and grandparents alone.

But he urged Chinese: "Do not be bitter, but be at peace with your own path, even if you have made mistakes."

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"Every people must be reconciled with its history as its own path, with its successes and its mistakes," he said. "And this reconciliation with one's own history brings much maturity, much growth."

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