ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
Updated: March 05, 2014 11:21 PM GMT
Picture: AFP Photo/Andreas Solaro
Pope Francis has said he has written to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first acknowledgment of communication nearly a year since both men took on their respective roles.
The pope said that “relations exist” as he described the Chinese as “great people. I love them.”
He was speaking during his third interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published on Wednesday.
“I sent a letter to President Xi Jinping when he was elected, three days after me. And he replied to me,” he said.
The first Jesuit pontiff also revealed his “great desire to develop friendly relations with China,” adding that The Vatican is “close to China.”
Although the pope prayed for victims of an earthquake in western China in April and for the Church in China on the World Day of Prayer in May, his comments mark the first time he has spoken of relations between both sides.
Pope Emeritus Benedict's early years as pontiff saw serene ties with Beijing. But tensions escalated in 2011 after The Vatican began to excommunicate government-backed bishops consecrated without papal mandate.
Following the shock resignation of Pope Benedict in February last year, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing called on the then unknown successor not to “interfere in China’s internal affairs”.
Speculation has mounted that Francis may visit Beijing this summer during a tour of Asia which would be the first by a pope to Chinese territory since the Communists took power in 1949. Since then there have been no bilateral diplomatic relations, and Beijing called off a papal visit to Hong Kong in 1999, two years after the UK returned the former colony.
Some Catholic Chinese bloggers have warned that the government may manipulate a visit by the pope for propaganda purposes. Others say it could harm the situation of the underground Church in China and that of worshippers in Taiwan where – unlike the mainland – no restrictions apply.
Officially, the Chinese government has said it remains angered by the Vatican’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan which it views as a renegade province.
However, Taiwan appears to be less of an issue behind the scenes. In 2005, Cardinal Sodano, The Vatican's then secretary of state, stated publically for the first time that it would be willing to move its Taipei embassy to Beijing overnight.
Bishop appointments remain particularly sensitive. The Vatican has rejected the authority of the Chinese state's Catholic Patriotic Association over the Church.
Hong Kong-based observer Kwun Ping-hung said that the previously unknown communication between Francis and Xi could signify a desire by both men to improve relations.
“However, having gone through ups and downs over several decades, China and the Vatican know very well that they each have their respective bottom lines to uphold and difficulties to face,” he said. “Both sides are prepared that there is still a long way to go.”