The Vatican could send a delegation to China by the end of the month, Beijing’s state-run media said Tuesday, with the visit potentially paving the way for a historic agreement on the appointment of bishops.

Beijing and the Vatican severed ties in 1951, two years after the Communist party seized power in China.

The decades-long standoff has split China’s roughly 12 million Catholics between those who follow government-approved prelates and those in “underground” pro-Rome churches.

St. Peter's Square St. Peter's Basilica Vatican Obelisk
The St. Peter’s Square before the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Obelisk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/cc-by-sa 3.0.

Negotiations have been underway for several years between the two sides on the thorny question of the appointment of bishops, some of whom have been appointed by the Chinese authorities without being recognised by Rome.

But the Global Times tabloid reported there are no longer “disputes over issues of principle” between Beijing and the Holy See. The Vatican delegation will visit in late September, it added, citing an unidentified source.

“If the meeting goes well, an agreement could be signed”, the newspaper said. The deal under discussion could see Pope Francis recognising the bishops appointed by Beijing without his approval.

Chen Chien-Jen Pope Francis
Taiwanese Vice-President Chen Chien-Jen meeting Pope Francis. Photo: Facebook/Chen Chien-Jen.

However, the current talks will not address establishing diplomatic relations between the two sides, the Global Times said.

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

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.

AFP is a global news agency delivering fast, in-depth coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to politics, sports, entertainment and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology.