China meets Pope message with caution

China has reacted to a message by Pope Francis to open new dialogue with Beijing, with some officials warning the Vatican not to “interfere” with the country’s religion. On the return flight from a recent tour of South Korea, Francis said that he was ready to go to China after receiving a positive response to two telegrams he sent to President Xi Jinping as the pope flew over Chinese airspace there and back.

“We respect the Chinese people,” Francis told journalists on the return flight. “The church only asks for liberty for its task, for its work.”

That is still a huge challenge, however, as the Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with China for nearly fifty years. The Catholic Church in China is divided between an “official” church known as the Catholic Patriotic Association with loyalties to the Communist Party, and an underground church that swears allegiance to Rome.

“China will always safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity and it never allows foreign forces to interfere with religion. The Vatican should respect China in terms of the personnel of a diocese,” Liu Yuanlong, vice president of the CPA, told the Global Times in a report.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs still is unhappy with the Vatican’s official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, while the Vatican is also unhappy with Beijing’s strict control of religious institutions, particularly through the appointment of bishops, which they claim should be up to the Church. The pope has been trying to improve relations with China since his election in 2013.