BEIJING (Reuters) - China has made real efforts toward establishing relations with the Vatican, a Chinese official said on Tuesday, as expectations grow for a landmark accord between the Holy See and Beijing on the appointment of bishops.
Chinese Catholics are split between those who attend officially sanctioned churches run by government-approved bishops and technically illegal "underground" churches, the vast majority of which are loyal to the Vatican.
Full relations would give the Church a legal framework to look after all of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics and move on to focus on Catholic growth in a country where Protestant churches are already growing fast.
The details of a framework accord that could eventually lead to diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Beijing were worked out when a Vatican delegation visited China late last year.
"From our government's prospective we have always maintained an honest desire to improve relations and the Chinese government has always made real efforts (towards this)," Chen Zongrong, former vice head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, said at a news briefing.
Tuesday's remarks follow a statement last Thursday from the Vatican that, although dialogue between the two sides continues, the deal was not about to be signed, after reports suggested it might be completed in March.
Under the expected formal deal, the Vatican will have a say in negotiations for the appointment of future bishops.
Another issue that will have to be resolved is self-ruled Taiwan, which maintains formal diplomatic ties with the Vatican. China, however, considers Taiwan a wayward province with no right to state-to-state relations.
Chen, who lost his position during a reshuffle of government departments China announced last month, added that channels of communication with the Vatican were unimpeded and Beijing hoped the Roman Catholic Church could meet it halfway.
However, religion in China must be independent of outside influence and organised within the country, he said.
Asked if denying the pope total authority to appoint bishops infringed upon the religious freedom of Chinese Catholics, Chen said, "I don't accept that idea, and in the religious lives and practices of numerous Catholics, this does not exist."
Xiao Hong, a former spokeswoman of the agency, said China was actively pursuing talks with the Vatican.
News of the impending deal has split Catholic communities across China and some faith leaders and believers both in and outside China have been critical of the accord.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong, said the Vatican would be "selling out" to China’s ruling Communist Party.
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd)