VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis hailed China's "great history of wisdom" on Tuesday, holding out the prospect of reconciliation with Beijing sought by some Chinese Catholics but feared by many others.
In an interview to mark the upcoming Chinese New Year, he said China "has always been for me a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom."
"I believe that the great richness of China today lies in looking to the future from a present that is sustained by the memory of its cultural past," Pope Francis said in an interview with the Asia Times published by the Vatican press service.
The pontiff did not directly address the status of the Church in China - a government-appointed Chinese Catholic association nominates its own bishops - but recalled early efforts of 16th Century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci to evangelise the Chinese while respecting their culture.
Unconfirmed reports from the Vatican have suggested an accord was in reach between the Holy See and Beijing on the pontiff being able to nominate Catholic bishops in China.
Both sides are in regular if discreet contact though some Chinese Catholics - who number an estimated 12 million - have accused the Vatican of being prepared to sacrifice their interests on the altar of reconciliation.
Publication of the pope's interview came after a discreet visit by a Chinese delegation to the Vatican in January.
According to informed sources, Francis could very soon designate several bishops in China, with the agreement of Beijing. This would be the first such nominations since the breakdown in diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China in 1951.
The two countries have not had diplomatic relations for more than six decades, with Beijing making a renewal dependent on the Vatican cutting ties with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
Within the Vatican two camps have for years vied for dominance. One led by Secretary of State Pietro Parolin believes the Holy See should show flexibility towards China which might then grant more freedoms to Chinese Catholics. The other fiercely criticises this approach, claiming that the Chinese regime has not changed at all.
"Ricci's experience teaches us that it is necessary to enter into dialogue with China, because it is an accumulation of wisdom and history. It is a land blessed with many things," said Francis.
The Argentinian pope has made clear his fascination with Chinese culture. "(Do) I want to go to China? Of course. I'd go tomorrow," he told reporters last year.