Beijing, China – After 67 years of acrimony, signs have emerged of improving relations between the Chinese government and the Vatican that could determine the future of the 10 million Catholics in China.
Francesco Sisci, an Italian academic and a China-Vatican relations analyst, said there are discussions about Pope Francis establishing a representative office in Beijing.
“This could happen within this year I would say,” Sisci, a senior researcher at a university in Beijing who was invited to interview Pope Francis in 2016, told Al Jazeera.
“I think it is a possibility. We don’t know. There are of course many things up in the air. But there is ‘love in the air’, as the song would say.”
The two sides severed ties in 1951 following the communist revolution, forcing many Catholics to go underground.
Catholic worshipers, however, have the option of praying in a state-sanctioned church, which does not recognise the authority of the pope in the last 67 years.
But now, China’s communist government and the Vatican are reportedly close to a historic deal that could give the Vatican more influence over state-approved churches, including the selection of bishops.
In the 2016 interview with Sisci, Pope Francis signalled a change in policy towards China, saying it is a “great country”, and that it is “necessary to enter into a dialogue” with its leaders.
In 2017, Chinese officials attended a summit at the Vatican.
Worshipers at a government-backed church in China’s capital, Beijing, told Al Jazeera they were enthusiastic about the prospect of better relations between China and the Vatican.
“I would be so happy if the Pope came to China. I always hope the Pope and the Vatican can establish diplomatic relations with China. I am so excited,” one worshiper said.
“The pope is the symbol of the Catholics. If you are Catholic you will definitely want to see him,” added another.
But some in the underground churches that operate without government approval said they are fearful about this growing rapprochement.
A senior Catholic official, retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, has also accused the pope of betrayal.
Cardinal Zen is the former bishop of Hong Kong, where religious freedoms are still protected.
“Many people in the universal church may get scandalised. They may lose their faith in the pope,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The poor pope has so many critics already. With this one, I am very sorry.”
Such harsh criticism of the pope, even by a retired cardinal is rare.
The Vatican has not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment. China’s Religious Affairs Bureau, which regulates the official church in China, has also refused to comment.