Pope Plays Down Chances of China Breakthrough

Jul 24, 2007 08:57 AM EDT

Pope Benedict played down the possibility of an imminent breakthrough in relations with communist China on Tuesday, saying the situation was "complicated".

A senior figure in the state-run Church in China made overtures in an Italian newspaper interview published on Tuesday, saying he hoped the German-born Pontiff would make a landmark visit to Beijing.

But the Pope underscored the delicate nature of relations with China when asked by reporters about a possible trip there.

"I can't talk about that now. It's a bit complicated," the Pope said.

China's 8 to 12 million Catholics are split between an "above-ground" Church approved by the ruling Communist Party and an "underground" Church that rejects government ties and says it answers only to Rome.

On June 30, Pope Benedict issued a letter on the Chinese Church that urged reconciliation.

But he also said the Vatican must be allowed to appoint bishops -- a demand China has rejected as interference in its domestic affairs.

Liu Bainian, vice-chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which often speaks for the state-controlled body, called the Pope's letter "a big step forward" in an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica.

He also said the Church in China recognised the Pope's spiritual authority, even though Beijing severed ties with the Vatican two years after the Communist takeover in 1949.

"We have always said that we recognise the sole authority of the Pope on religious matters," Liu said. "I hope with all of my strength to be able to see the Pope in Beijing someday, to celebrate mass for us Chinese."