China says willing to improve ties with Vatican
BEIJING, Mar 30: China said today it was willing to improve ties with the Vatican, but stressed its long-standing demands that the Pope sever ties with Taiwan and keep out of what Beijing says are domestic matters.
Last week, Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo said the time was ripe to overcome differences with China, which considers Taiwan its own, and open a dialogue that may lead to full relations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said today that China had noted recent reports that Pope Benedict may want to visit China.
''China has always been sincere toward improving relations with the Vatican on the basis of the two principles,'' Qin told a regular news conference.
He was referring to Beijing's insistence that Rome must end diplomatic ties with self-ruled Taiwan and agree not to intervene on what China considers domestic matters, especially the appointment of bishops.
The Vatican has suggested some flexibility on Taiwan, but remained critical of China's state control of religion.
''We hope the Vatican side can take real actions to create a good atmosphere and favourable conditions for the bettering of ties,'' Qin said.
Beijing has had no diplomatic relations with the Vatican since 1951, two years after the Communist Party took power, and it only allows Catholics to worship at state-backed churches that recognise the Pope as a spiritual figurehead but not an effective leader of the Chinese church.
The Vatican estimates that about 8 million Chinese Catholics worship in the ''underground churches'' not recognised by the Chinese government, compared with some 5 million who belong to the state-controlled church.
The Pope last week elevated Joseph Zen, the outspoken Hong Kong bishop who has criticised the lack of religious freedom in China, to Cardinal.
China has not directly commented on Zen's promotion, but Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the official Catholic Patriotic Association, said earlier this month that the move signalled Rome wanted to challenge China's Communist Party just as the late Pope John Paul II confronted Soviet Communism in Poland.