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Pope Benedict Blesses Beijing Olympics

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BRESSANONE, Italy — Pope Benedict XVI sent greetings to China on Sunday before the Olympics and said he hoped the Games would offer an example of coexistence among people from different countries.

He said he will follow the Olympics, which open Friday, with a sense of "deep friendship" and expressed hope the sports can represent "a pledge of brotherhood and peace among people."

Benedict spoke during the traditional Angelus prayer in Bressanone, a town in the Italian Alps where he is vacationing.

"I follow with deep friendship this great sporting event _ the most important and awaited on a world level _ and I wish that it offer the international community a valid example of coexistence among people of different background in the respect of common dignity," the pope told the faithful gathered in Bressanone.

Benedict sent his greetings to China, organizers of the Games and the athletes, expressing hope that "each can give their best in the true Olympic spirit."

Benedict has made the improvement of relations with Beijing a priority of his papacy.

China's officially atheistic Communist Party forced Chinese Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, and the two sides have not restored formal relations. Beijing sees the Vatican tradition of the pope naming his own bishops as interference in the country.

China appoints bishops for the state-sanctioned Catholic church. Still, many of the country's estimated 12 million Catholics worship in congregations outside the state-approved church and often are arrested or harassed.

Benedict sent a special letter to Catholics in China last year, praising the underground church, but also urging the faithful to reconcile with followers of the official church.

In his Sunday's address, the pontiff mentioned the only saint from the area where he is on vacation _ a missionary who went to China in the 19th century and died there in 1908. The pope made the comment in Ladino, the third language of this corner of German-speaking northern Italy.

The Angelus was the pope's first public appearance of his vacation. It drew some 9,000 people, some dressed in local costumes.

The pope has been working on a new volume of his book about Jesus as well as on speeches for his trip to France next month, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Benedict said the visit to Bressanone allows him "to go back into my past and at the same time walk toward the future." The pope visited the town a dozen times when he was a cardinal, often in the company of his brother, Georg, who has joined him.

Benedict will return to his summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome on Aug. 11.