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Pope close to breaking deadlock in spat with China, report

Pope Francis has decided to accept the legitimacy of seven Catholic bishops appointed by the Chinese government. He hopes in return that Beijing will recognize his authority as head of the Catholic Church in China.

The Vatican is moving closer to a historic agreement with Beijing over who ordains bishops in the communist and officially atheist country, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal and confirmed by the French news agency AFP.

"Things are moving," a source told AFP. The pope will reportedly lift the excommunications of seven Beijing-backed bishops and recognize them as the leaders of their dioceses in China.

The issue flared after two underground Chinese bishops, recognized by the pope, were asked by a top Vatican diplomat to resign in favor of state-sanctioned prelates, including one who was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2011. The Vatican has in the past ex-communicated three of the seven bishops to be recognized by Pope Francis.

An agreement would still leave unresolved other major questions about the Catholic Church's status in China, including the position of more than 30 bishops recognized by Rome but not by Beijing and re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican is likely to remain a distant goal.

Chinese Catholic Bishop Zhang Hong blesses newly baptized worshippers at a mass on Holy Saturday in Beijing in 2017 (Getty Images/K. Frayer)

Chinese Catholic Bishop Zhang Hong blesses newly baptized worshippers at a mass on Holy Saturday in Beijing in 2017

Ball in Beijing's court

Beijing will now have to decide whether it accepts the proposed agreement, which would give the pope veto power over future bishop candidates in China.

Beijing's major condition for that agreement has been that the pope recognize the seven bishops, who were approved by the Beijing-backed Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and generally toe the government's line.

The Holy See "hopes [the concession] will lead Beijing to recognize his authority as head of the Catholic Church in China," the WSJ said, quoting a "person familiar with the plan," who did not provide a timeline for ending the talks, which began in 2015.

The pope's approach comes as Beijing tightens its grip on religious practice under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. New regulations that came into effect on Thursday requiring religious institutions receive government approval for teaching plans, overseas pilgrimages and other activities.

Long-standing disaffection

Beijing and the Vatican cut diplomatic relations in 1951. Ties have improved in recent years, but the two sides remain at odds over which side has the authority to ordain bishops. The issue of Taiwan also looms large over the talks.

China's 12 million Catholics are split between a government-run association, whose clergy are picked by the Communist Party, and an unofficial church that swears allegiance to the Vatican.

There are also about 40 million Protestants, meanwhile, according to some studies to two or more times that number in the estimates of some missionary groups.

Some not best pleased

Cardinal  Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong and a prominent champion of such Catholics, warned against any deal between China and the Holy See.

"Winston Churchill said, 'How can we deal with a totalitarian regime? How can we trust a totalitarian regime?' They are simply not trustworthy," he said in an interview this week.

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jbh/sms (AFP, dpa)

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