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Setback to Vatican-China thaw

A concerted diplomatic effort to bridge the deep divide between China and the Vatican has suffered a setback, with the downgrading of a conference designed to begin a new dialogue between the two antagonists.

A powerful delegation headed by Giulio Andreotti, a former Italian prime minister, was due to attend the seminar in Beijing yesterday to mark the 400th anniversary of the mission to China in 1601 by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. But a spokeswoman for Mr Andreotti said he would not attend. Nor will representatives of China's state-sanctioned Patriotic Catholic Church.

Beijing severed diplomatic ties with the Vatican in the early 1950s. Since then, China has allowed worship at the Patriotic Church, through the Communist party body that polices all religions, and repressed an underground Catholic community loyal to Rome.

A carefully planned diplomatic schedule provided for China to send representatives to Rome after yesterday's meeting to hear the Pope make a conciliatory statement at the Vatican's own celebrations for Ricci at the end of the month. But participants in the dialogue are now playing down any talk of rapprochement.

"We have not received an invitation [to the seminar], and we don't plan to participate," said Liu Bainian, the vice chairman of Patriotic Church.

Mr Liu said relations with the Vatican had been improving until last year, when the Vatican infuriated Beijing by announcing the canonisation of 87 Chinese and 33 foreign martyrs on October 1, China's National Day. Mr Liu said the incident "showed that Vatican has no real intention to improve relations".

In Hong Kong, Bishop Joseph Zen said there was "no real foundation for optimism" over relations with China, which he said continued to harass and detain Catholic clergy who refused to toe Beijing's line.

Financial Times (London)