A Vatican office has rejected media reports of a possible visit by Pope Francis to China this year, dismissing it as mere speculation "without any substance."
Chinese media have been discussing the possibility of such a visit after Italian political journal La Verita
recently reported that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin was secretly arranging a papal visit to China.
The newspaper said Pope Francis planned to visit Wuhan city first and then Beijing and other cities.
Wuhan, an industrial city in central China, hit the headlines after Covid-19 infections were first reported there last December before the coronavirus became a global pandemic by March.
The reports of a "hypothetical journey are devoid of any substance," the Vatican press office told UCA News in a brief message.
Even papal journeys that were already planned “were postponed because of the worldwide health emergency. No new journey, to any country, is currently being examined," the message said.
Pope Francis has expressed a desire to visit China several times. During a visit to Thailand and Japan last year, he expressed his wish to visit China, saying: "I love China."Diplomatic sensitivity
Speculation about a papal visit has been getting a lot of traction from Catholics in mainland China. It has also aroused interest in Taiwan because of its fragile relations with both the Vatican and China.
China considers Taiwan as part of the People's Republic of China and does not recognize it as an independent nation. However, the Vatican is among some 18 countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, recognizing it as a nation.
Taiwan's central news agency reported that the Taiwan embassy had checked with the Holy See about a possible papal visit and received a response that "the foreign ministry of the Vatican does not know about this arrangement."
Rumors of a papal visit to China pop up periodically. Such speculation emerged soon after Pope Benedict XVI took office in 2005. Three years later, there were still rumors that Benedict was planning to visit China on the eve of the Beijing Olympic Games.
The speculation this time, some observers note, could have something to do with the recently frequent interactions between Beijing officials and the Vatican.
The two sides signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of Chinese bishops in September 2018. In October of the same year, two mainland bishops were invited to the Vatican to attend the World Conference of Bishops, during which Pope Francis was invited to China.
On Feb. 14 this year, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher met with Chinese Foreign Minister and State Counselor Wang Yi at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany. Such a diplomatic meeting came after a gap of 70 years.
Wang described the meeting as "opening up greater scope for future exchanges between the two sides" and expressed his willingness to enhance understanding further and build up mutual trust with the Vatican.
Early this month, China sent medical donations to the Vatican through the Red Cross to help it fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office, thanked the "generous act" from China, saying that he felt "the care of the Chinese people and the Catholic community." He also "assured them of the reverence and prayers of the Holy Father."
The new speculation comes at a time when China's international image has been hit by allegations that it was responsible for the eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Observers say the speculation about a papal visit could help China build up a positive image as a country ready to welcome arguably the world's most known religious leader and advocate of human freedom.
Ren Yanli, an expert on China-Vatican issues, said China had taken a clear stance on the diplomatic issue.
It wants the Vatican to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan and not to interfere in China's internal affairs in the name of religion.
"None of this can be resolved overnight. Therefore, the pope's visit to China is believed to be unlikely soon," Father Sui Feng, a mainland Catholic priest and church observer, told UCA News.