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Pope Francis Urges U.S. and North Korea to Step Away from the Brink

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt meeting with Pope Francis on Friday in Cairo. Credit Egyptian Presidency, via Reuters
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Pope Francis urged the United States and North Korea on Saturday to defuse their increasingly tense standoff and avert a potentially horrific conflict.

“I call on them, and I will call on them, as I have on leaders of different places, to work to resolve their problems through diplomatic avenues,” Pope Francis said, speaking aboard his plane as he returned to Rome from a trip to Egypt.

Noting that North Korea’s missile program was not a new concern, he added that “things have gotten too hot” and suggested that “the United Nations has the duty to reassume, a little, its leadership because it’s been watered down.” During a 30-minute news conference on his plane, Francis, steadying himself through rough turbulence, touched on a number of topics.

He said he still had not received a request for a meeting with President Trump; he defended his appearance with the authoritarian president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; and he again called refugee camps in Europe “concentration camps.”

Francis partly deflected a question about how he would advise French Catholics taking part in next month’s presidential election, especially with Marine Le Pen, a far-right candidate with an anti-immigrant platform, on the ballot.

The pope said he did not know enough about French politics to respond, but, he said, “Europe is in danger of breaking apart, this is true.” He noted that the migrant crisis fueled fears that destabilized the Continent, “but we mustn’t forget that Europe is made by immigrants.”

“Centuries and centuries of immigrants,” he said. “It’s us.” That inclusive message has proved popular with liberals. But Francis, 80, also repeated language that some have criticized as insensitive or tone deaf.

Asked if he wanted to clarify remarks he made last week at a special prayer event for Christian martyrs when he said that refugee camps were like concentration camps, a comparison criticized by Jewish groups, the pope said, “It wasn’t a slip of the tongue.”

“There are refugee camps that are real concentration camps,” he said, adding, by way of explanation, that the refugees were detained in camps and could not get out.

The pope’s instruction to reporters on the plane that questions be limited to themes touched on during his Egypt visit meant that he skirted some pressing issues facing the Vatican, notably the lack of progress by his commission established to safeguard children from sexual abuse.

But Francis seemed eager to address one pressing geopolitical issue. He urged the United States and North Korea to step away from the brink and avoid a nuclear conflict that could, he said, be disastrous for “the future of humanity.”

His comments came just days after Mr. Trump said in an interview with Reuters that there was a chance “that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” The president’s remarks seemed to undercut remarks by others in his administration to ease the dispute by raising the possibility of direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea.

Mr. Trump is scheduled to make his first trip abroad as president in May. His exact itinerary is unclear, but he is expected in Taormina, Sicily, for a meeting of the world’s leading economic powers at the end of the month. A visit with the pope is standard for American presidents traveling to Italy, but the two world leaders have a rocky history.

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