BEIJING: A historic agreement between the Vatican and Beijing on the appointment of bishops in China could be signed as early as this Saturday, a Chinese government-approved bishop said in a report published today.
Negotiations have reached "the final stages," Bishop Guo Jincai, secretary-general of the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, was quoted as saying by the state-owned Global Times newspaper.
"If everything goes right, the deal could be signed as early as the end of this month," said Guo, who is recognised by China's Communist government.
Beijing and the Vatican severed diplomatic relations in 1951 and although ties have improved as China's Catholic population grows, they have remained at odds over the appointment of bishops.
China's roughly 12 million Catholics are divided between a government-run association, whose clergy are chosen by the atheist Communist Party, and an unofficial underground church loyal to the Vatican.
The situation is complex because the Vatican has previously accepted several bishops appointed by Beijing, officially an atheist regime.
But opponents -- among them the respected Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen -- say the agreement risks abandoning loyal believers and amounts to a deal with the devil.
On Tuesday night, Chinese police released an underground bishop at the heart of the Beijing-Vatican negotiations after holding him for a day, sources told AFP on Wednesday.
Vincent Guo Xijin, bishop of the diocese of Mindong in the southeastern province of Fujian, is recognised by the Vatican but not by the Chinese authorities.
He was recently urged by the Vatican to step aside for Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu and to accept being demoted to auxiliary bishop, as part of preparations for the agreement.
According to Catholics consulted by AsiaNews, which is run by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, Guo's disappearance can be explained by his refusal to celebrate Easter with the prelate who will replace him.
Asked about Guo's arrest, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Wednesday he was not aware of the situation.
According to information from the French daily La Croix published Monday, a Chinese delegation is expected in Rome this week.
Lu said he had no information but said that China "is always sincere towards improving its relations with Vatican" and willing to meet it "half-way".