The Vatican on Saturday announced it had signed a “provisional agreement” with China aimed at defusing tensions over the appointment of bishops, a breakthrough on an issue that stymied diplomatic relations for decades.

Beijing’s long-held insistence that it must approve the appointments in China clashed with absolute papal authority to pick bishops. On Saturday, the Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis had decided to approve seven bishops named by Beijing, not the Vatican, over the years, “with the view of sustaining the proclamation of the Gospel in China.”

Francis decided to “readmit to full ecclesial communion the remaining ‘official’ bishops ordained without pontifical mandate,” the statement said. “Pope Francis hopes that, with these decisions, a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics.”

There was no immediate mention of the status of two underground bishops named by the pope.

But Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Pope Francis was visiting, indicated the accord would provide a blueprint for future appointments of bishops, who lead the faithful in their dioceses.

Burke told reporters that the aim of the accord “is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities.”

He did not immediately provide details about the deal, announced at the Vatican and in Beijing shortly after Francis began a four-day pilgrimage to the Baltics.

FILE – In this April 18, 2018 file photo, Pope Francis meets a group of faithful from China at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican. On Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, the Vatican announced it had signed a “provisional agreement” with China on the appointment of bishops, a breakthrough on an issue that for decades fueled tensions between the Holy See and Beijing and thwarted efforts toward diplomatic relations. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)

The Vatican described the provisional agreement as “the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement” following a “long process of careful negotiation,” and said it allows for periodic review. It added that the deal “creates the conditions for greater collaboration at the bilateral level.”

While the agreement could help pave the way for formal diplomatic ties and possibly an eventual papal trip to China, it was also sure to anger Catholics who vigorously advocated for the Vatican to maintain a hard line on caring for its flock in China, where Catholic clergy and rank-and-file faithful have suffered persecution and imprisonment over the years.

Under China’s Communist rule, the country’s estimated 12 million Catholics — a tiny minority in the populous nation — are split between those belonging to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the underground one loyal to the pope.

The accord was signed in Beijing during a meeting between China’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Wang Chao, and the Vatican undersecretary for state relations, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri.

In Beijing, the foreign ministry put out a statement saying “China and the Vatican will continue to maintain communications and push forward the process of improving relations between the two sides.”

Even as China professed the desire for better relations with the Holy See, the deal was signed against a backdrop of a Chinese crackdown on religions. Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, faithful are seeing their freedoms shrink even as the country experiences a religious revival. Experts and activists contend that as Xi is consolidating power, he is waging the most systematic suppression of Christianity since the Chinese constitution allowed for religious freedom in 1982.

Xi is trying to infuse all of the religions in China with “Chinese characteristics” such as loyalty to the Communist Party. As part of this drive, Islamic crescents and domes have been stripped from mosques and a campaign is underway to “re-educate” tens of thousands of Uighur Muslims. Tibetan children have been moved from Buddhist temples to schools and banned from religious activities during summer holidays, state-run media have reported.

FILE – In this April 18, 2018 file photo, Pope Francis meets a group of faithful from China at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican. On Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, the Vatican announced it had signed a “provisional agreement” with China on the appointment of bishops, a breakthrough on an issue that for decades fueled tensions between the Holy See and Beijing and thwarted efforts toward diplomatic relations. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)

This spring, a 5-year plan regarding Christians was introduced, along with new rules on religious affairs. Over the last few months, local governments across China have shut down hundreds of private Christian “house churches.”

The Vatican spokesman indicated there was still some ways to go for better relations between the Catholic Church and China.

“This is not the end of a process. It’s the beginning,” Burke said. “This has been about dialogue, patient listening on both sides even when people come from very different standpoints.”

Bridging different points of view has characterized much of Francis’ five-year papacy, and led to the Vatican helping improve relations between another communist nation, Cuba, and the United States.

In Taiwan, the foreign ministry said in a statement that “as the world watches China increasingly tightening control over religious practices, Taiwan trusts that the Holy See has made appropriate arrangements to ensure that Catholic adherents in China will receive due protection and not be subject to repression.”

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Source: The Associated Press