The Vatican on Saturday made public a letter Pope Benedict wrote to Catholics in China.  In the letter, the pope said it is a priority of his papacy to restore diplomatic ties between the Vatican and China.  The pope also extended an olive branch to Beijing, saying he hoped to reach an agreement with the officially atheist state, where millions of Catholics pray under a state-controlled church that does not recognize his authority.  Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome.

In the letter, addressed to the "bishops, the priests, the religious, and the lay faithful" of China, Pope Benedict insisted on his right to appoint bishops and called on church members in the country to unite under his authority. The pope urged Chinese leaders to allow religious freedom, and move toward restoring diplomatic ties with the Vatican, which were severed in 1951, shortly after the Communist takeover.

China's estimated 12 million Catholics are divided between an underground church, which is loyal to the Vatican, and an official state-approved church, whose bishops are appointed by Beijing and which only considers the pope a spiritual leader. 

Benedict's letter also sought to bridge the divide between those Catholics in China who are faithful to Rome and those who worship at the state-sanctioned Catholic churches. He revoked previous Vatican-issued restrictions on contacts with the clergy of the official church, and recognized that some Chinese faithful have no choice but to attend Masses in officially approved churches.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, who heads the Rome-based missionary news agency AsiaNews, said the most important aspect of Pope Benedict's letter to Chinese Catholics was his emphasis on the unity of the church in China.

Until now, he said, the church in China has always been distinguished between the state-controlled official church and the underground church.

But Father Cervellera said the pope's letter urges Vatican-appointed bishops to look for recognition from the government while at the same time urging the bishops approved by the Chinese authorities to be clearer in their relationship with the pope. And, he added, that the pope also calls on the faithful to be more united as well.

"This unity of the church goes together with a fundamental stress for the freedom of religion in China, which needs to be respected," he noted.  "And this is why the pope says that the Church doesn't have a political aim, or it's not an instrument for overthrowing the government, but the Church needs its own space and role in today's Chinese society."

In the letter, the pope praised the recent social and economic achievements of the Chinese people. He also expressed the hope for sincere dialogue with the civil authorities.

In a note accompanying the letter, the Vatican said that it was prepared to move its diplomatic representation from Taiwan to Beijing "at any time" as soon as an agreement with the government was reached.

The pope's letter was translated into five languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese and was posted in Chinese on the Vatican's home page.