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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang points out a reporter to receive a question at a regular news conference in Beijing, October 27, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday downplayed the significance of a top health official's attendance at a Vatican conference on organ trafficking this week, saying it probably had nothing to do with two-way ties.

Pope Francis would like to heal a decades-old rift with China, where Catholics are divided between those loyal to him and those who belong to a government-controlled official church.

Chinese state media have said Huang Jiefu, a former vice-minister of health who heads the China Human Organ Donation and Transplant Committee, is attending the conference organised by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, on Feb. 7 and 8.

Huang was just there to attend the conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing.

"As far as I understand it, it shouldn't have anything to do with China-Vatican relations," Lu said, without elaborating.

One obstacle to better ties is the question of who should make senior clerical appointments in China.

China says bishops must be named by the Chinese Catholic community and refuses to accept the authority of the pope, whom it sees as the head of a foreign state that has no right to meddle in China's affairs.

The two sides have been at loggerheads since the expulsion of foreign missionaries from China after the Communists took power in 1949.

Another source of friction is the Vatican's maintenance of official ties with self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province to be taken back by force, if necessary.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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