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China calls for Vatican 'actions' to improve ties

China has called for "concrete actions" from the Vatican to help improve relations, after Pope Benedict XVI urged Chinese bishops to resist pressure from Beijing and stay true to Rome.

"We hope that the Vatican can be clearly aware of the fact that China practises freedom of religious belief and of the continuous development of China's Catholic Church," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

Jiang added that Beijing hoped the Vatican would "create conditions for the development of China-Vatican relations through concrete actions".

Yesterday, the pontiff called on Catholics across the world to pray that Chinese bishops would refuse to split from Rome, despite what he called "pressure" from the country's communist authorities.

"We know that among our brother bishops there are some who suffer and find themselves under pressure in the exercise of their episcopal ministry," Benedict XVI said at his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square.

"To them, to the priests and to all the Catholics who encounter difficulties in the free profession of faith, we express our closeness," he said.

The pope called for prayers for the Church in China, "that it remain one, holy and Catholic, faithful and steadfast in doctrine."

"Chinese Catholics, as they have said many times, want unity with the universal church, with the successor to Peter," he said.

The Chinese Patriotic Chinese Association -- which controls the state-backed church -- does not acknowledge the pope's authority and is fiercely opposed to clergy in China who are loyal to the Vatican.

The Vatican and China have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1951, when the Holy See angered Mao Zedong's Communist government by recognising the Nationalist Chinese regime as the legitimate government of China.

The Nationalists fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war with the Communists in 1949. As such, the Vatican is one of the few states that recognise the island, which Beijing considers part of its own territory.

Relations between the Vatican and the Chinese church became increasingly tense following the ordination of a priest in Chengde last November without the pope's blessing.

Official tallies put the number of Catholics in China at 5.7 million, including members of both the unofficial and official churches.

Human rights groups say that those who remain loyal to the Vatican often suffer persecution, with detentions of bishops common.

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