Chinese officials confirm talks with Vatican


Beijing, Feb. 21, 2008 ( - Chinese government officials have confirmed that they are engaged in quiet negotiations with the Vatican, hoping to improve ties and eventually restore diplomatic relations.

"The Chinese side has had contact with the Vatican," Liu Jianchao, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters in Bejing on February 21.

Although there have been numerous reports of unofficial talks during the past few years, Chinese officials had not openly acknowledged those talks until this week. Liu spoke to reporters after China's top religious-affairs official, Ye Xiaowen, discussed the Rome-Beijing negotiations during a visit to the US.

Ye told reporters in Washington, DC, that China was firm in making two demands. Before diplomatic relations could be established, he said, the Vatican must withdraw diplomatic recognition from Taiwan and acknowledge China's right to govern the international affairs of the Catholic Church there.

Ye said that Beijing has received assurances that the Holy See is prepared to meet China's demand regarding ties with Taiwan. "We have known from various channels that Vatican has indicated that this is not a difficult issue," he said.

However the question of Church governance poses a more difficult challenge. In his June 2007 letter to the Church in China, Pope Benedict XVI (bio - news) made it clear that the Vatican could never accept the authority of "entities that have been imposed" upon the Church, or forms of Church leadership "desired by the state and extraneous to the structure of the Church." The Pope was clearly referring to the Patriotic Catholic Association, set up by the Communist government to supervise Catholic activities in China.

Ye Xiaowen hinted that Beijing may be open to compromise on the question of Church leadership, telling reporters that "this point can be discussed." In recent months a tactic agreement seems to be in place, under which the government has quietly allowed the appointment of bishops approved by the Holy See. During his visit to the US, Ye Xiaowen met in Washington with Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the veteran Vatican diplomat who now serves as apostolic nuncio to the US. The Chinese official declined to reveal the content of his discussions with Archbishop Sambi, citing a mutual agreement to keep the talks confidential. But there is little doubt that he and the archbishop pursued the question of Rome-Beijing ties.

Beijing's insistence on a "one-China policy," which precludes diplomatic relations with the Holy See as long as there is a Vatican enovy in Taiwan, is not a serious obstacle, informed source in Rome have confirmed. When the papal representative was forced to leave China after the Communist takeover there, a diplomatic post was established in Taipei. (The Vatican's representative in Taiwan today holds the title of chargé d'affaires rather than ambassador-- although Taipei's envoy in Rome is accredited as the "ambassador" to the Holy See.) Vatican diplomats have always viewed this as a temporary arrangement and indicated that the Holy See would prefer to have a representative on the mainland. In October 2005, Cardinal Angelo Sodano (bio - news)-- then the Vatican Secretary of State-- told reporters: "If we could have ties with Beijing, then-- not tomorrow but tonight-- the nuncio-- or rather the chargé d'affaires who is now in Taiwan would head for Beijing."

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