Vatican announces deal with China on bishop appointments

Pope Francis with pilgrims from China in St Peter's Square

Pope Francis with pilgrims from China in St Peter's Square

The issue of who appoints bishops has been at the heart of a dispute since China first broke off diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1951.

The announcement had been expected amid speculation that it could lead to a normalisation of ties between the Vatican and Beijing, possibly at the expense of Taiwan.

Beijing has long insisted that the state must approve the appointment of bishops in China, running contrary to the Catholic Church's insistence that it is a papal decision.

The Vatican said the pope hoped "a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics".

"It concerns the nomination of Bishops, a question of great importance for the life of the Church, and creates the conditions for greater collaboration at the bilateral level", it added.

While the Vatican is one of only 17 countries that recognises Taiwan, Pope Francis has sought to improve relations with China since taking over in 2013.

In Beijing, the foreign ministry put out a statement saying: "China and the Vatican will continue to maintain communications and push forward the process of improving relations between the two sides".

The pope also posthumously recognized an eighth bishop who "had expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Apostolic See" before he died previous year, it said.

The provisional agreement, signed in Beijing by deputy foreign ministers from both sides, was announced as Pope Francis visited Lithuania on a four-day trip to the Baltic countries.

This split the country's roughly 12 million Catholics between the state-sanctioned church - which includes the government in its Prayer of The Faithful during mass - and the underground church which sees the Vatican as the ultimate authority.

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Taiwan's top China policy-making body, the Mainland Affairs Council, noted that religious communities in China still "suffer greatly" and urged Beijing to refrain from "interference and persecution".

MOFA said the Holy See had assured Taiwan that the accord would not affect the 76-year-old official diplomatic relationship between the two.

Analysts warn Beijing could use the accord to further crack down on Catholic faithful.

Vatican sources have said the complicated deal, which will not be published, is provisional so that it can be reviewed and fine-tuned.

The Vatican spokesman indicated there was still some ways to go for better relations between the Catholic Church and China.

"Ultimately, the Party would like to subsume all forms of worship under state organs that make it easier to manage and ensure that everyone's primary loyalty is to the state", Sullivan told AFP. He said about a year ago, about 10 priests were in prison in Hebei province near Beijing, but he didn't know their current situation.

While the clergy is appointed by the Communist Party, the Vatican has previously accepted several bishops appointed by the government.

"Whatever this means for the church is up to God".

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that the Chinese government has been "closing churches, burning Bibles and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith".

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