Pope offers prayers for 'noble, courageous' Chinese people

Pope Francis holds weekly general audience at the Vatican

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Wednesday called for prayers for the Chinese people, in unscripted remarks coming amid the Vatican's desire to upgrade its relations with Beijing.

Relations with communist China have historically been fraught, but Francis has made it a priority to normalise them, building on a landmark 2018 pact on appointing bishops.

"This also makes me think about the beloved Chinese people: let us always pray for this noble and very courageous people who have such a beautiful culture," the pope said.

Francis spoke during his weekly audience in St Peter's Square, adding to pre-written remarks as he greeted an association that honours a late Vatican envoy to Beijing.

The Vatican's overtures to China are controversial, as critics see them as a form of appeasement towards a country accused of trampling on religious freedom and human rights.

Beijing has been following a policy of "Sinicisation" of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party.

There are an estimated 10 to 12 million Catholics in China.

(Reporting by Alvise Armellini, editing by Alex Richardson)