Taiwan said Thursday that a historic agreement between China and the Vatican was likely to be imminent, but remained hopeful the move would not result in it losing its only diplomatic ally in Europe.

The foreign ministry said it had obtained information from “various sources” that an agreement between the Vatican and China on “religious affairs” was most likely to be signed in September or October.

Speculation has been rife that the Vatican is moving closer to an agreement with China over the major stumbling bloc of who ordains bishops.

china catholic
A delivery man rides his bike in front a Catholic church in Duolun street in Shanghai on September 11, 2016. Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour.

But there are fears that would put Taiwan’s official ties with the Vatican at risk, as Beijing makes a concerted effort to poach its allies.

The Vatican is one of only 17 countries around the world that recognises Taipei instead of Beijing, but Pope Francis has sought to improve ties with China since he took office in 2013.

China still sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and demands that allies of Beijing must give up any official ties with the island.

Taiwan, which has around 300,000 Catholics, has lost five allies to Beijing in the past two years.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry spokesman Andrew Lee said the government would “not take lightly” any agreement between the two sides.

But asked whether the Vatican had given Taiwan any assurances that it would not sever official ties, Lee said he believed the deal would not touch on diplomatic recognition.

“I think the religious affairs agreement concerns issues of religious cooperation and exchanges, and will not involve issues of diplomatic ties,” he said at a briefing.

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“We hope our ties with the Vatican will last a very long time even if the agreement were signed,” he added.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had “made efforts” to improve relations with the Holy See, without elaborating.

“We are willing to work together with the Vatican to promote dialogue and improve relations,” Geng added at a regular press conference Thursday.

Hong Kong’s Catholic press reported earlier this month that a new round of Sino-Vatican negotiations was expected to be held in September and a deal could be signed in October.

There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, divided between a government-run association whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and an unofficial church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.

The Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with Beijing since 1951, two years after the founding of the communist People’s Republic.

Previous attempts to restore ties have floundered over Beijing’s insistence that the Vatican must give up recognition of its rival Taiwan and promise not to interfere in religious issues in China.

Relations between Taiwan and China have deteriorated since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016, as she does not recognise the island is part of “one China.”

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