Beijing (AFP) - Catholics in China should build a more independent, socialist church, a senior Beijing official has said, as the government remains at odds with the Vatican on the issue of ordaining bishops.
The country's roughly 12 million believers are divided between those loyal to Beijing, whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and members of a so-called "underground" church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.
The Holy See and Beijing have not had diplomatic ties since 1951, and although relations have improved in recent years as China's Catholic population has grown, they remain at odds over which side has the authority to appoint senior clergy.
On Thursday, Chinese Catholics were told to better integrate into the country, adapt to society and benefit the people, according to the official news agency Xinhua.
They should "adhere to the principles of self-administration, run religious affairs independently and guide believers to adhere to the Sinicization path of the religion", said Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee.
The comments, which come as the Communist Party has increased scrutiny of foreign influence in the country’s affairs, seemed to imply that believers should distance themselves from the Pope and instead follow Beijing’s lead.
Catholics need to “better adapt to society and unify patriotism with affection for the Church,” Yu added.
Yu was speaking at a three-day national conference of Chinese Catholics -- the first such meeting in six years, coming as the Vatican has made increased overtures to Beijing.
The Vatican had condemned previous conferences because members of the unofficial church loyal to Rome had reportedly been forced to participate.
Addressing the conference earlier in the week, Wang Zuoan, head of China's State Administration for Religious Affairs, said that Beijing is willing to have constructive dialogue with the Vatican, Xinhua reported.
"The Chinese government hopes that the Vatican can adopt a more flexible and pragmatic approach to create favourable conditions for improving relations through practical actions," he said, without giving specific examples.
Chinese and Vatican officials have met at least four times since January to try to resolve the delicate issue of the appointment of bishops.
Since becoming head of the Holy See in 2013 Pope Francis has tried to mend ties with Beijing in the hope of reconnecting with Catholics in China.
The Vatican is also one of the few states to maintain diplomatic relations with the self-ruled island of Taiwan, rather than Beijing, a sticking point for the Communist Party.