BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Tuesday it was sincere about better ties with the Vatican, a day before the planned ordination of a bishop that will be a test of whether the two sides can rein in tensions over control of religious life.
The Vatican and Beijing agreed to allow Father Peter Luo Xuegang, serving alongside an aged and more senior "ordinary" bishop, to be ordained in Yibin diocese in southwest China, according to reports. That would mark a break with a cluster of controversial appointments made without the Pope's approval.
The ordination of bishops is a key test in dealings between China and the Vatican, because it sets the Communist Party's role in policing religious life against the Catholic Church's traditional hostility to interference from secular authorities.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei did not comment directly on the ordination of Father Peter in Yibin, a small city in Sichuan province, southwest China.
"We have always been sincere about improving relations with the Vatican," Hong told a daily news briefing in response to a question about the scheduled ordination.
Chinese Catholics number between 8 million and 12 million, and are divided between a state-sanctioned church that has installed bishops without the Vatican's approval and an "underground" wing long wary of associating with the Communist Party-run Patriotic Catholic Association.
Pope Benedict has encouraged the two sides of the divided Chinese church to reconcile, and engaged in a low-key dialogue with Beijing about political ties.
But from late last year Chinese authorities appointed three bishops without the Vatican's approval, igniting strains in relations.
Beijing and the Vatican broke formal diplomatic relations shortly after the Chinese Communists took power in 1949.
The Holy See is one of the few governments to preserve formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan -- the self-ruled island that mainland China deems an illegitimate breakaway -- and Beijing has pressed for the Pope to shift recognition to it.
In July, the Vatican said it had excommunicated a Chinese bishop ordained without papal approval, and Pope Benedict said he "deplored" the way Communist Party authorities have treated Chinese Catholics faithful to Rome.
AsiaNews, an online service that reports on Catholic affairs, however, reported earlier that the ordination in Yibin is "taking place with the permission of the Holy See and the consecrating bishop has long been in communion with the Pope."
In past years, the two sides have also quietly reached agreement on appointing bishops. The Vatican has also absolved bishops appointed through government channels who it determined had gone along under coercion.
But AsiaNews said an excommunicated bishop from nearby Leshan diocese is likely to participate in the ceremony, potentially bringing tensions into the event.
"Several bishops of neighboring dioceses, who thought to participate in the ordination, are now afraid to participate," because of the excommunicated bishop's presence, it said.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)