A historic deal between China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops is not "imminent," a Vatican spokesman said Thursday, contradicting an optimistic statement from a Chinese government-approved bishop.
"I can state that there is no imminent signature of an agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China," said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.
"I would like to stress that the Holy Father Francis remains in constant contact with his collaborators on Chinese issues and is accompanying the steps of the ongoing dialogue," he added.
On Thursday, Bishop Guo Jincai, secretary-general of the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, was quoted by the state-owned Global Times as saying that negotiations with the Vatican had reached "the final stages".
"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.
The Vatican relaunched long-stalled negotiations with Beijing three years ago.
The question of whether China or the Holy See gets to designate bishops has been a major obstacle to progress.
Under a potential deal, the Vatican could agree to recognise seven bishops who were chosen by the Communist government, in the hope that Beijing would accept the pope's authority as head of the Catholic Church in China, a source close to the matter told AFP last month.
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.
While some believe an agreement will bridge divisions between the two, others fear concessions to China may backfire on the "underground" devout, many of whom suffered years of persecution for following the pope.
The Vatican has previously accepted several bishops appointed by Beijing.
- A deal with the devil? -
Some opponents -- among them the militant Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen -- say an agreement risks abandoning loyal believers and amounts to a deal with the devil.
A lay Catholic in central China told AFP that the deal would "certainly" lead to "less freedom for the underground Church".
"If the Vatican violates its conscience, the underground believers in mainland China will certainly not accept it," she said.
Last month, an open letter by lay Catholics mostly based in Hong Kong expressed concern that the recognition of Beijing-appointed bishops would lead to "confusion and pain, and schism would be created".
- Bishop disappearance -
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 state-appointed 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.
But, he added, the "Chinese government fully respects and protects, according to the law, the rights of religious belief and freedom of its citizens".
On Thursday Lu expressed hope that the dialogue between China and the Vatican could "continue to proceed well and achieve positive results".