BEIJING (AP) - China's state-backed Catholic church Monday welcomed a newly announced Vatican initiative to repair ruptured relations with Beijing and said a promised letter from Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Roman Catholics could be helpful.
Liu Bainian, the often hard-line vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, struck a conciliatory tone in response to the Vatican's announced diplomatic foray.
"I hope and I also believe that the pope's letter will show his love of China's churches," Liu said in a telephone interview. "I am hopeful that it can improve Chinese-Vatican ties."
The Vatican announcement, made Saturday after two days of high-level debate on China, said the Holy See sought a dialogue with the aim of restoring diplomatic relations with Beijing and said Benedict was preparing a message for Chinese Catholics.
China's official Catholic church, backed by the communist government, refuses to recognize the Vatican's authority, while many clergy and ordinary Catholics remain loyal to the pope and have been persecuted for it.
Participants in the Vatican's debate on China policy paid tribute to this "price of great suffering."
Liu glossed over the criticism, saying the report also mentioned how fast the Chinese church has grown in recent years — proof, he said, that the Vatican recognized that China enjoyed religious freedom.
The Vatican debate and the pope's promised letter caught the attention of Catholics at a church in Shijiazhuang, said the Rev. Zhang Shijiang.
Zhang, the director of the Hebei Faith Press Newspaper, an officially approved weekly with a circulation of 50,000, said the two gestures would "certainly enhance dialogue and mutual trust and eliminate misunderstandings on both sides."
At the core of the Vatican's dispute with China are Taiwan and the appointment of bishops. The Vatican has indicated it is willing to downgrade relations with Taiwan. But Catholic Church tradition invests the pope with the authority to name bishops.
Beijing and its state-backed church, however, have appropriated the right, ordaining three bishops in 2006 without Vatican approval. Last month, Benedict expressed "great sorrow" over the latest such ordination.
"I personally hope that in the future they can agree on joint bishop approval," said Zhang — a comment that indicated that China is open to the idea.
"If it weren't for our lack of regular ties, it would not be so problematic for our two governments to reach agreements on issues," Liu said in apparent reference to the practice of jointly approving bishops.
Opinions within the Vatican hierarchy over China also appear divided. One participant in the Vatican debate was Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken advocate for freedom of worship and a critic of Beijing.
Zen, 75, was quoted in Hong Kong media as saying the pope was probably going to let him step down as the city's bishop to help the Vatican restore diplomatic ties with China.
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