The Vatican on Saturday urged China’s communist government to recognize that the “time is ripe” to overcome their differences and open a dialogue that would lead to full diplomatic relations.
The latest overture came as Pope Benedict elevated Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the outspoken Hong Kong bishop who has criticized the lack of religious freedom in China, to the rank of Roman Catholic cardinal.
“In our opinion, the time is ripe,” Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican’s foreign minister, said in a lengthy interview with a Hong Kong’s I-Cable TV whose text was distributed to reporters by the Vatican press office.
“We trust in an opening of the spirit of the supreme authorities of the People’s Republic of China, who cannot ignore the expectations of their people, as well as the signs of the times,” he said.
China has had no diplomatic ties with the Vatican since 1951, two years after the Communist takeover.
Lajolo said the Pope’s decision to include Zen among the 15 new cardinals he installed on Friday was a “sign of his special affection for the whole Chinese population”.
He added: “The Pope is confident that the meaning of such a gesture will be properly understood and, in some way, returned.”
China refuses to allow the Vatican to appoint bishops and it refuses to allow Catholics to recognize the authority of the Pope, saying this would be interference in its internal affairs.
Instead, Chinese Catholics must belong to a state-backed church known as the Catholic Patriotic Association.
The Vatican estimates it has about 8 million followers in China who worship in the “underground Church”, compared with some 5 million who follow the state-backed association.
“Chinese Catholics do not feel that they are less Chinese for being Catholics ...,” Lajolo said.
“Now, if stable, open and trusting relations could be established between the Holy See and the Government of Beijing, I do not doubt that these tensions could be overcome and any ambiguity cleared up,” he said.
Beijing has insisted that diplomatic ties cannot be resumed unless Rome first severs links with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
Lajolo repeated the Vatican’s position on Taiwan. He said it was ready to move its embassy back to Beijing from Taipei.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano said last October that the Vatican wanted freedom for Catholics in China and to be allowed to re-open its embassy in Beijing with no conditions attached.
The Vatican is one of just 25 states, most countries in Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific, that maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
China and Taiwan, officially called the Republic of China, have been political rivals since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Each accuses the other of using “dollar diplomacy”, or soft loans and other economic incentives, to win allies.