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Vatican olive branch spurs hopes for China ties

A bold initiative from Pope John Paul to mend ties with China ignited hopes on Thursday among Chinese Catholics and defiance in Taiwan, whose only ally left in Europe is the Vatican.

However, analysts said a swift breakthrough in normalising relations was unlikely, with conservatives in the Chinese Communist Party and the Vatican still a formidable force against rapprochement.

The Pope apologised to China for errors of the colonial past, pleading for the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican, which now recognises Taiwan.

China's Foreign Ministry declined immediate comment and the state-run church, the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), said it had received a notice from the authorities recently not to talk to reporters.

"It is a sensitive time. We have to behave ourselves," said one CPA official in Nanjing.

However, a priest at a Catholic church in Shanghai said he was hopeful the Pope's appeal would draw a positive response from China that would set the two on track for eventual establishment of diplomatic relations.

"Now that China is slowly opening up, there is a higher chance of the government recognising the Pope and we certainly look forward to that," said the priest, who asked not to be identified.