Updated: December 14, 2014 06:47 PM GMT
The Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama (right) attends a debate "Living peace, Preventing Wars" on Saturday during the 14th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Rome (AFP Photo/Andreas Solaro)
Pope Francis may be known for championing dialogue, but faced with the certainty of riling China, analysts say, he ducked out of a meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Sensitivities over the fate of the Catholic minority in China were foremost on the pope's mind when he decided against greeting the Tibetan spiritual leader, according to observers.
A spokesman for the Holy See confirmed Thursday that the pope would not meet the Dalai Lama — whom the Argentinian pontiff "obviously holds... in very high regard" — despite the Tibetan's presence at a meeting in Rome of Nobel peace laureates.
Francis, an advocate of interfaith ties, isn't the first pope to wrestle with the question of whether to grant an audience to the Tibetan Buddhist leader.
His predecessor Benedict XVI met the Dalai Lama in 2006 but declined follow-up visits in 2007 and 2009.
The issue of how to handle Tibet is of strategic importance for the Vatican.
China is home to several million Catholics and Protestants, whose freedom of religion is heavily curtailed.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican would allow Catholicism in the world's most populous nation to flourish.
Since becoming pope, Francis has given new impetus to the quiet discussions that have been ongoing between Rome and Beijing since the 1980s.
A meeting with the Dalai Lama could jeopardize that, given Beijing's known abhorrence of any gesture of solidarity towards Tibet by other powers.
A spokesman for the Dalai Lama said he was "disappointed" but acknowledged that a meeting with the pope could have caused "inconvenience."
"The Vatican's diplomatic objective is to avoid actions that fuel instability in already tricky situations and avoid decisions whose consequences are paid for by others — in this case, Chinese Catholics," Andrea Tornielli, a commentator with the Vatican Insider site, said.
On his return from a visit to South Korea in August Francis had expressed a wish to visit China as early as "tomorrow" and voiced admiration for its "wise people."
"The church only asks for liberty for its task, for its work — there's no other condition," he said, referring to Beijing's tight control over the country's "official" Catholic church.
China's Communist leader Mao cut ties with the Holy See in 1951. The dialogue resumed after the Cultural Revolution, under John Paul II.
China has been top priority for the Vatican ever since.
President Xi Jingping and Francis exchanged letters of congratulation on their respective elections in 2013.
In September, Argentina's Infobae news site reported that Francis had followed up with a letter to Xi, inviting him to a meeting at the Vatican.
China has around 12 million Catholics, half of whom are members of the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
The remainder belong to underground churches that are loyal to the Vatican, although there is some overlap.
The chief bone of contention between Rome and Beijing is China's policy of consecrating of bishops without the pope's approval. In the rest of the world, bishops are named by the pontiff.
For China, renouncing control over the nominations would mean relinquishing part of its sovereignty.
Beijing is also wary of the influence of Western ideas spread by Catholics and Protestants.
There are two schools of thought in the Vatican on normalizing ties.
One believes that the Vatican should reach an agreement with China "on a less problematic nomination process," says Regis Anouil, a French specialist on Asian churches.
The other fears that China would twist any agreement in its favor.
The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which has been backed by two local cardinals, is likely to dampen any vague desire China had to relax its grip on religion.
Anouil also believes that China has less riding on the establishment of diplomatic ties than Rome.
To illustrate the point, he cites Beijing's refusal to reciprocate a 2008 invitation to the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra to perform at the Vatican.
The Sistine Chapel Choir was refused permission to play in Beijing and Shanghai during a recent visit,
The singers to settle for Hong Kong, Macao and Taipei instead. AFP