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Vatican Eyes Strategy With China Relations

Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday said the church will pursue efforts to form diplomatic ties with Beijing as it tries to help its "suffering" faithful there. Church officials are holding a summit at the Vatican to map out the church's strategy with China since it broke off diplomatic relations with the country in 1951. For VOA, Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome.

Top Chinese bishops, including Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken advocate champion of religious liberty, debated the Chinese problems in special discussions Friday and Saturday at the Vatican, along with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Though Pope Benedict XVI did not participate in the talks, he has "benevolently decided to write a letter to Catholics in China," the Vatican press office said in a statement. No details were immediately given about when the letter might be issued.

Reverend Bernardo Cervellera, the director of the missionary news Service AsiaNews, said both sides discussed existing problems.

"The meeting has been called by the secretary of state to try to find a way to understand what is happening in China and also in the church in China," he said.

Beijing's ties with the Vatican were broken in 1951 after the communists took power in China. Worship is only allowed in government-controlled churches, but as many as 10 million Catholics are estimated to belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.

China's state-sanctioned Catholic Church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, unilaterally appointed three bishops last year, angering the Vatican and raising questions about efforts for diplomatic ties.

The two days of talks centered on defining a delicate strategy which could embrace both goals of better ties and guaranteeing religious freedom.

Cervellera said there's an important appointment coming up for the Chinese government, one where China will want to show its best face: the 2008 Olympic Games.

"They want to show to the world that they are a modern, a great country, a great country at the same level as the U.S., the EU and so on. For this they would like to liberalize much more the situation but also they would like to give a perfect image of a free country," he said.

Pope Benedict has made restoring relations with China a key item on his agenda. There has even been talk of a possible papal trip to China around the time of the Olympics.