China official says gap with Vatican narrowing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China’s top religious affairs official said on Wednesday the gulf was narrowing with the Vatican over normalizing ties, but he put the onus on the Holy See to make concessions to improve relations.

China’s 8 million to 12 million Catholics are split between a state-sanctioned church and an “underground” church that rejects government control and answers only to Rome.

Beijing and the Vatican broke formal diplomatic relations shortly after the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949. They differ over who has the authority to appoint bishops but have been engaging in a secretive and cautious exploration of normalization.

“China and the Vatican are walking toward each other,” Ye Xiaowen, director-general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, told reporters in Washington.

“The distance between the two sides is getting shorter and shorter, but there is a river between the two sides.”

Ye said Beijing’s terms were for the Vatican to switch diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan and for Rome to accept Beijing’s control over the Chinese church.

“If there is a day that the Vatican is really sincere in accepting those two principles, that will be the day when relations between the two sides improve,” he added.

Ye said he had lunch on Tuesday with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, and Vatican ambassador Pietro Sambi. He said the meeting was personal and not part of diplomatic normalization efforts.

Reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by John O’Callaghan