China to hold Catholic conference after six-year hiatus

Villagers walk at a square to pray, on the top of a hill near a Catholic church on the outskirts of Taiyuan, North China's Shanxi province, on Dec 24, 2016.
Villagers walk at a square to pray, on the top of a hill near a Catholic church on the outskirts of Taiyuan, North China's Shanxi province, on Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - China said Monday (Dec 26) it will restart a conference of local Catholics, ending a years-long hiatus, as it expressed goodwill towards the Vatican after six decades of estrangement.

The country's roughly 12 million Catholics are divided between a government-run association, whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and an unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.

Although Beijing and the Vatican have improved relations in recent years as China's Catholic population has grown, they remain at odds over which side has the authority to ordain bishops.

The ninth Chinese Catholic representative conference will begin Tuesday and run through Thursday in Beijing after a six-year hiatus, the foreign ministry said during a press briefing.

The Vatican had condemned previous conferences because members of the unofficial church loyal to Rome had reportedly been forced to participate.

But this time the Holy See has given tacit approval for members of the so-called "underground" church, including bishops, to attend the conclave, according to Catholic web sites familiar with religious affairs in China.

"We believe this conference can push the integration of Catholic activities into Chinese society and culture a step forward," spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, adding that the country had "goodwill" towards the Vatican.

"We want to move forward down the same road with the Vatican and promote bilateral, constructive dialogue and relations," she said.

China and the Vatican severed diplomatic relations in 1951.

Since becoming head of the Holy See in 2013 Pope Francis has tried to improve relations with Beijing in the hope of reconnecting with Catholics in China.

Chinese and Vatican officials have met at least four times since January to try and resolve the delicate issue of the appointment of bishops - the heart of the dispute.