Pope Francis gestures as he talks during a special audience with members of the Eucharist Youth Movement in Paul VI hall at the Vatican. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

An olive branch. That's what the Associated Press called Pope Francis's first-ever interview on China.

In a Jan. 28 exclusive published Tuesday by Hong Kong's Asia Times, the pope spoke in glowing terms about the "greatness" of the Chinese people, declined to directly criticize China's one-child policy, which the Church long opposed, and sent a New Year's greeting to President Xi Jinping.

His comments were strikingly positive considering Beijing and the Holy See cut ties in 1951. The ruling Chinese Communist Party, which came to power in 1949, is officially atheist.

What Pope Francis said:

On his admiration for China:

"China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom. For me, as a boy, whenever I read anything about China, it had the capacity to inspire my admiration. "

On the need for engagement:

"Encounter is achieved through dialogue. The true balance of peace is realized through dialogue."

On the changing "model" of a Chinese family:

"I believe that the Chinese people are moving forward and this is their greatness. It walks, like all populations, through lights and shadows. Looking at this past — and perhaps the fact of not having children creates a complex — it is healthy to take responsibility for one’s own path. Well, we have taken this route, something here did not work at all, so now other possibilities are opened up."

What he didn't say: 

Not a word about religious freedom or the persecution of Chinese Christians.

In 1957, the government set up a rival church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), in a bid to control the faith. Estimates of the number of Catholics in China today vary widely, in part because believers are split between the official, state-backed Church and unregistered “house Churches.” In 2011, the Pew Research Center estimated that about 5.7 million of China's 9 million Catholics are affiliated with the CPCA.

China appoints its own bishops, several of whom the Vatican has excommunicated. Another sore spot: The Vatican recognizes Taiwan, a no-go for Beijing.

A pope has never visited China, but Francis has hinted that he hopes it will happen. In 2014, he said he wrote a letter to Xi and received a reply.  The same year, he delivered a blessing while flying through Chinese airspace en route to Korea.

After his visit to the United States last fall, the pontiff was more direct: “I’d love to go to China,” he told the press. Many now wonder if he is angling for an invitation.

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