VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican and China have held new talks on the naming of bishops and the Holy See raised concerns over a tightening of restrictions on religious practice, Vatican and diplomatic sources said on Friday.
The talks between the two delegations, the first since a meeting in Beijing in December, took place quietly in Rome in recent days, the sources said. The Vatican has not announced the talks.
Vatican sources said there was still no clear idea on when the deal could be signed but that the dialogue was continuing.
Catholics in China are split between those in “underground” communities that recognize the pope and those belonging to a state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association where bishops are appointed by the government in collaboration with local Church communities.
An even partial resolution of the thorny issue of the appointment of bishops could open the way for an eventual resumption of diplomatic relations nearly 70 years after they were cut during the Communist takeover of China.
While not part of the present talks, 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 Vatican side expressed its concern over restrictions, including one that banned unaccompanied minors from entering churches in several regions, one of the sources said.
It was not possible to reach any members of the Chinese delegation.
Legislation on religious affairs that came into effect in February has raised official oversight of religious education and practice, and introduced harsher punishments for practices not sanctioned by the authorities.
Some Asian Church leaders have been highly critical of the Vatican’s rapprochement with China.
One of the most outspoken has been Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong, who has accused Rome of “selling out” to China’s communist party.
Vatican officials with knowledge of the negotiations have rejected Zen’s accusations. They say the deal they are working on is far from perfect but would be a vital step in the Vatican’s quest to look after the spiritual needs of all Chinese Catholics.
Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alison Williams