Pope Francis is leading a determined push to fundamentally alter the relationship between the Vatican and China, which for decades has been infused with mutual suspicion and acrimony.
Interviews with some two dozen Catholic officials and clergy in Hong Kong, Italy and mainland China, as well as sources with ties to the leadership in Beijing, reveal details of an agreement that would fall short of full diplomatic ties but would address key issues at the heart of the bitter divide between the Vatican and Beijing.
A working group with members from both sides was set up in April and is discussing how to resolve a core disagreement over who has the authority to select and ordain bishops in China, several of the sources told Reuters. The group is also trying to settle a dispute over eight bishops who were appointed by Beijing but did not get papal approval - an act of defiance in the eyes of the Vatican.
In what would be a dramatic breakthrough, the pope is preparing to pardon the eight, possibly as early as this summer, paving the way to further detente, say Catholic sources with knowledge of the deliberations.
A signal of Francis' deep desire for rapprochement with China came last year in the form of a behind-the-scenes effort by the Vatican to engineer the first-ever meeting between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Aides to the pope tried to arrange a meeting when both Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping were in New York in late September to address the United Nations General Assembly.
The meeting didn't happen. But the overture didn't go unnoticed in Beijing.
While the two sides have said they are discussing the issue of the bishops, Catholic sources gave Reuters the most detailed account yet of the negotiations and the secret steps the Vatican has taken to pave the way to a deal.
The current talks come more than six decades after victorious Communist Party leaders, having vanquished the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, expelled Vatican envoy Antonio Riberi from Beijing in 1951 as they banished missionaries and began a crackdown on organized religion. The Vatican remains the only Western state that does not have diplomatic ties with Beijing, maintaining instead formal relations with the Republic of China, based in Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province.
For the Vatican, a thaw in relations with China offers the prospect of easing the plight of Christians on the mainland who for decades have been persecuted by the authorities. It may also ultimately pave the way to diplomatic relations, giving the Church full access to the world's most populous nation.
An official relationship with China "would crown a dream that the Catholic Church has cultivated for many centuries: to establish a regular presence in China through stable diplomatic ties," said Elisa Giunipero, a researcher at the Catholic University of Milan who has studied the history of the Catholic Church in China for 20 years.
For China, improved relations could burnish its international image and soften criticism of its human rights record. It would also be an important step in prizing the Vatican away from Taiwan, handing China an important diplomatic victory in its efforts to isolate the self-governing island.
Spokespeople for the two sides acknowledged the talks are continuing but declined to answer detailed questions about them.
"The aim of the contacts between the Holy See and Chinese representatives is not primarily that of establishing diplomatic relations, but that of facilitating the life of the Church and contributing to making relations in ecclesial life normal and serene," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told Reuters.
"We are willing, on the basis of the relevant principles, to continue having constructive dialogue with the Vatican side, to meet each other halfway and jointly promote the continued forward development of the process of improving bilateral ties," China's Foreign Ministry said. "(We) hope the Vatican can likewise take a flexible and pragmatic attitude and create beneficial conditions for improving bilateral relations."
A PAPAL INVITE
Forging an agreement won't be easy. There is resistance on both sides.
Among Chinese leaders, there is concern that a deal would give the Vatican a powerful foothold on the mainland, challenging the Communist Party's absolute authority.
In the "underground" church in China, whose members have been systematically persecuted for decades by the authorities, many devotees may feel betrayed by a Vatican deal with Beijing. Catholic clergy belonging to the underground church have been detained and jailed through the years, and several bishops have died in prison, according to Catholic sources who monitor the situation on the mainland.
The Catholic Church in China, where there are an estimated eight to 10 million devotees, is divided into two communities: the "official" church, which is represented by the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and the "underground" church, which swears allegiance solely to the pope in Rome. Scholars estimate the number of Christians in China belonging to all denominations may be as many as 70 million.
Despite resistance in some quarters of the Catholic Church, including in Hong Kong, Pope Francis has made improved ties with China a priority, and a tight-knit circle of envoys and advisers around the pontiff are working on a deal, multiple sources told Reuters.
After he was elected pope in March 2013, Francis sent a message to Xi congratulating him on having become president of China. Then, while flying over China in August 2014 on the way to Seoul - the first time Beijing had allowed a pope to enter its airspace - the pope sent his best wishes to Xi and the Chinese people. The next month, Francis sent a letter to Xi via Argentinean politician Ricardo Romano, who had met the future pope when Francis was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, inviting the Chinese leader to a meeting, Romano told Reuters.
In early February this year, the pope sent wishes to Xi for the Chinese New Year, the country's most important holiday. And on his way back to Rome from Mexico two weeks later, the pope told a news conference on the plane that he would "really love" to visit China.
NEW YORK RENDEZVOUS
An early indication that Pope Francis was serious about improving relations with China was his appointment in August 2013 of then Archbishop Pietro Parolin as his Secretary of State, the highest ranking diplomat in the Vatican. Under Pope Benedict XVI, Francis' predecessor, Parolin had been the Vatican's chief negotiator with Beijing and was near to hammering out a deal with China on the appointment of bishops in 2009, people with direct knowledge of those negotiations say.
"In 2009, Parolin came very close to an agreement (with China)," said Agostino Giovagnoli, a professor of contemporary history at the Catholic University of Milan who closely follows the Vatican's relationship with China.
Ultimately, an agreement on the bishops wasn't reached as the Vatican considered it too narrow, say Catholic Church sources.
Parolin then moved to Venezuela in 2009 as the Vatican's representative there. His departure marked the start of a period of chilly relations with China.
In June 2014, the sides restarted contacts with a meeting in Rome, according to a Catholic official. A year later, the Vatican made its attempt to get Francis and Xi Jinping together in New York.
The pope was scheduled to fly from New York to Philadelphia on the morning of Sept. 26 last year, departing from John F. Kennedy Airport, his itinerary shows. Xi was heading to New York from Washington. The airport, three Catholic officials told Reuters, could have provided a discreet venue for a meeting between the two leaders, away from the media glare.
Catholic officials and clergy, and sources in China with knowledge of the contacts, offer differing accounts of why the leaders ultimately didn't meet, but all agree that the pope wanted to meet Xi and that this message was communicated clearly to China.
According to a Chinese source with direct knowledge of the matter, Beijing "could not make up its mind whether it should take place before or after the signing of an agreement."
In October, though, a six-person Vatican delegation made a visit to Beijing, followed by another meeting in January. A breakthrough came in April this year when the sides agreed to set up a working group, according to two Catholic Church officials. The group is modeled on the Joint Liaison Group that Britain and China adopted to iron out issues before the handover of Hong Kong to the mainland in 1997, according to one of the officials.
The pope, says one Catholic official, has given "clear instructions to continue the dialogue (with China) and find a resolution."
The working group, which met in May, has been charged with hammering out technical solutions to the dispute over the ordination of bishops in China. It is currently discussing how to resolve the issue of eight bishops who were ordained in China without papal consent, according to Church officials and other Catholic sources with knowledge of the deliberations. Going forward, the Holy See wants to prevent a situation in which bishops are appointed by an authority other than the pope.
Catholic officials say there are 110 bishops in China, most of whom have been sanctioned by the Communist Party. There are about 30 bishops who are part of the underground church and have pledged allegiance only to the pope.
Most of the bishops recognized by Beijing have also sought the pope's blessing and received it. But there are eight bishops who were ordained in China and don't have papal approval. They are considered illegitimate by the Vatican.
Three bishops in this group of eight have been officially excommunicated by the Vatican, according to public statements issued by the Holy See. The other five were told through informal channels that the pope opposed their ordination as bishops, according to Catholic sources.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that at least two of the eight bishops allegedly have children or girlfriends, according to two Catholic sources. That's a direct affront to the celibacy pledge taken by Catholic priests. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the personal status of these bishops.
Catholic Church officials and Catholic clergy with knowledge of the discussions told Reuters that the pope is preparing to pardon these eight bishops. The papal pardon would coincide with the Jubilee of Mercy, a year in which Catholics are urged to seek forgiveness for their offenses and forgive those who have offended them. The Vatican hopes a pardon would be interpreted by China as a goodwill gesture.
"I believe Pope Francis wishes to use the occasion of the Holy Year of Mercy to force a breakthrough," says Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, a Belgian missionary and member of the Vatican Commission for the Church in China, which was set up under Pope Benedict to advise the Holy See on relations with China. The jubilee year ends in November.
The eight bishops whom the Vatican considers illegitimate can be readmitted to the Catholic Church if they receive a papal pardon. By the end of June, two out of the eight had not yet sent Francis a clear request for pardon, Catholic Church officials said.
Since the Vatican does not consider these eight bishops fit to run a diocese, the two sides are discussing a possible compromise that would allow them to retain their titles but be assigned to other tasks, according to Catholic officials.
Chen Jianming, director of the foreign affairs office of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, told Reuters it would be difficult to arrange interviews with any of its bishops. "They're very busy people, often out in the field. Interviews would be very difficult," Chen said.
The Patriotic Association and the State Administration for Religious Affairs in Beijing did not respond to questions from Reuters about the negotiations with the Vatican.
A BISHOP'S CHANGE OF HEART
The joint working group is also discussing another vexing issue - a mechanism whereby new bishops will be selected. The sides have failed to resolve this matter in nearly 30 years of on-off contacts. Attempts to find a solution under Benedict and Pope John Paul II failed.
In line with centuries of Catholic tradition, bishops are appointed by the pope. But China adopts a model whereby bishops are chosen by the local Chinese clergy, who are members of the Communist Party-controlled Patriotic Association.
Under a solution currently being discussed, the bishops would be selected by the clergy in China. The pope would have the power to veto candidates he considers unfit, but the Vatican would need to provide evidence that the person in question is unqualified for the position, according to Catholic Church officials and clergy. A key concern for Rome is that priests in China could face pressure or be offered inducements to favor candidates.
A source in Beijing with ties to the leadership said the sides have reached a tentative agreement on the future appointment of bishops, but did not provide details.
If a deal can be forged on the selection of new bishops, the Vatican then hopes to focus on an agreement that would see Beijing recognize the bishops who are members of the underground church.
A sudden reversal last month by a high-profile Chinese bishop underscores the sensitivity of this issue. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, angered Beijing when he announced that he couldn't remain in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association at his ordination ceremony in 2012. But Ma, who has since been under house arrest at the Sheshan mountain seminary on the outskirts of Shanghai, wrote in a June 12 blog post that in retrospect, the move had been "unwise."
It is unclear why Ma recanted, but some Catholic officials are concerned that the bishop was pressured into making the statement by the Chinese authorities. That could be interpreted as an affront to the pope, one Catholic official told Reuters. Other Catholic sources speculated that Ma may have acted voluntarily in an effort to defuse his confrontation with Beijing and help smooth the way to a deal.
The Chinese authorities did not reply to questions from Reuters about Ma's decision.
FEAR OF FOREIGN INFLUENCE
In his effort to forge a breakthrough with China, Pope Francis will have to overcome deep-seated fears. China views the Church with suspicion, says the source in Beijing with ties to the Chinese leadership. For the Communist Party, which is officially atheist but recognizes five religions - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism - the existence of a religion that recognizes a foreign leader as its moral authority is viewed as a potential threat.
Communist Party leaders, who were traumatized by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, are acutely aware of the role played by the Catholic Church in the fall of communist regimes, such as the 1989 revolution in Poland, the homeland of the late Pope John Paul II.
Within China there are also competing forces that could trip up an agreement, say Chinese and Catholic officials. The Foreign Ministry views détente with the Holy See as a way to isolate Taiwan, as the Vatican would likely have to sever ties to Taipei in the event of full diplomatic relations with Beijing. But the United Front Work Department, a party body whose mission is to spread China's influence, is less enthusiastic, fearing the threat of foreign religious infiltration.
"Internally, there is division over whether the Pope can be trusted or not," says the source with leadership ties.
For centuries, the Catholic Church has struggled to make inroads in China, where foreign influence, including Christianity, has been met with suspicion. That distrust erupted at the turn of the 20th century with the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion, which targeted foreigners, including Christian missionaries, as well as Chinese Christians.
But relations have not always been fraught. Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit like Pope Francis who arrived in the country in the late 16th century, embraced Chinese culture and became fluent in Mandarin, earning him access to the court of Ming dynasty Emperor Wanli. Ricci, who died in 1610, was buried in Beijing with the approval of the emperor.
In some quarters of the church, there are varying degrees of opposition to a deal with China. While Parolin is spearheading the drive for an agreement, the Vatican department in charge of foreign missionary work is more cautious about a deal, according to Catholic sources.
Criticism is especially strong in Hong Kong which, along with Macau, has long served as a beachhead for Catholicism on the mainland. The former British colony is home to missions and clergy that maintain extensive networks among both foreign and Chinese priests working in China, many underground.
The most outspoken opponent is Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong, who is a member of the Commission for the Catholic Church in China, the advisory body set up by Benedict. Some members of the commission opposed the draft deal the Vatican hammered out with China in 2009, according to several people with knowledge of the deliberations.
"The Chinese government has no intention to give in on anything," Zen, a respected figure in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, told Reuters.
Under Francis, the commission has been sidelined. While it hasn't been dismantled, the body hasn't convened since he became pope. And the talks with China are being led by Rome-based Vatican officials.
"Chinese Catholics want to be reunited in a single church," said a Chinese bishop who was appointed by Beijing and is also recognized by the pope. "But it is difficult to think of a deal that could satisfy everyone."
Some members of the underground church, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, are especially dubious about a deal with China. Many have faced harsh persecution. Catholic clergy are closely watched by Chinese security forces, and priests have been pressured to register with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, Catholic sources say.
China Aid, a Texas-based group that monitors the government's treatment of all Christian denominations in China, said in its 2015 annual report that repression by the Chinese state had escalated. In areas where state repression was particularly strong, it pointed to the forcible closure of secretive house churches, the detention of "large numbers of pastors, church leaders and Christians," and the confiscation of church property.
China's Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions about religious persecution.
Bishops in the underground church have been jailed and subjected to forced labor, according to reports in the Catholic media. Shi Enxiang, the underground bishop of Yixian in northeast China, died last year after having been detained in 2001, according to UCANews, a Catholic news service focused on Asia. The bishop, who was 94, had been confined to prison or labor camp for about half his life, UCANews said.
"A full reconciliation needs time. If you go too fast, some segments of the underground Church could feel betrayed," says Antonio Sergianni, a former Vatican official who worked on the China desk in Rome for 10 years until 2013. "But if the pope shows a new path, we need to follow the pope."