Vatican nudges closer to China accord

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WHILE A physically frail Pope dreams of one day visiting China, the Vatican is pushing for improved relations with the country, despite tough conditions set by Peking.

A state visit to Rome this week by President Jiang Zemin has prompted an olive branch from a senior Vatican official, who publicly said the Holy See was willing to "modify" its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Low-level negotiations have been going on for more than a decade, with Peking torn between wanting to see the Vatican sever diplomatic ties with Taipei, and fearing anything that would promote Catholicism on the mainland. For the Vatican, China represents the world's biggest potential market of converts. For Peking, the image of huge crowds gathering for a papal visit - as recently in Cuba - is unthinkable.

Now the Vatican is making the moves to reach a compromise on China's two strict conditions: that the Vatican cut diplomatic ties to Taiwan, and that it "must not interfere with China's internal affairs by means of religious activities".

This week, in an interview with the Corriere della Sera newspaper, the Vatican Foreign Minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, said: "We are aware that in order to normalise our relations with Peking we will have to modify the form (of relations) with Taipei ... We are willing to negotiate." Peking is demanding a severing of relations as a pre-condition for negotiations.

Taiwan yesterday warned the Holy See against falling for Chinese "hypocrisy". Roy Wu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "The Chinese Communist regime has always been hostile to religions. The Vatican must not be fooled by their pretence to be good."

All religions are burgeoning in China, trying to fill the spiritual void left after the ideological collapse of Communism.