DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Being Catholic in China can be pretty complicated. The Vatican in Beijing cut ties two years after communists took control of China in 1949. And since then, Chinese Catholics have been divided. Some attend government-run churches, others unofficial ones. Well, now there are signs the two sides might be close to reaching a historic deal. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: There are around 12 million Catholics in China - less than 1 percent of China's population.
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SCHMITZ: It's a number you feel at a weekday morning mass inside Shanghai's St. Peters Church, where a small percentage of pew space is occupied by a few loyal parishioners. But for how small the Catholic population is in China, a potential deal between the Vatican and China's government has been big news in recent weeks. Since becoming the head of the Holy See in 2013, Pope Francis has shown an interest in China. He said he wants to visit the country. He sent a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the two sides have reportedly met at least four times this year to try and settle differences that go back decades.
XIA: (Speaking Chinese).
SCHMITZ: "Only in China do we have a problem like this," says Mrs. Xia after mass in downtown Shanghai. She says China's unique in this sense because Beijing doesn't want foreign control of its churches. Xia, who only gives me her surname because she's scared of getting in trouble with the authorities, attends both official and unofficial churches in Shanghai. She says the fundamental disagreement is about who gets to choose clergy inside of China.
XIA: (Through interpreter) It's complicated if only the government gets to choose bishops, but the government has a hard time understanding the rules of the Catholic Church.
SCHMITZ: What's clear is that both Beijing and the Vatican seem to want to come to an agreement, so says Ren Yanli, an expert on Chinese Catholics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
REN YANLI: (Through interpreter) In the past, the Vatican seemed more eager to talk, but now the Chinese side is more interested. China wants to improve its international reputation.
SCHMITZ: Ren says, for China, this is an issue of face. And you might think that, for the Vatican, the appeal would be China's 1.3 billion souls and the potential to attract them. But Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson says it's more than that. Johnson, the author of the forthcoming book "The Souls Of China: The Return Of Religion After Mao," says this is primarily about souls that are already with the church.
IAN JOHNSON: It's a way to help Catholics in China so that they're part of a legitimate church. And I think, from Beijing's point of view, it's a way to make sure that this small but perhaps influential group of Chinese is under some sort of structures that the party can feel comfortable with. They don't like having an underground church.
SCHMITZ: Officially, there are eight Chinese-appointed bishops who the Vatican doesn't recognize. And there are 30 Vatican-approved bishops that China won't recognize. And then there are those like Dong Guanhua, bishops that neither side recognizes.
DONG GUANHUA: All my parishioners are fine with it. They can tell between what's real and what isn't. They're seeking the true spirit.
SCHMITZ: Dong is a self-ordained bishop in rural Zhengding County in northern Hebei province. He runs an unofficial Catholic Church out of his home. He has a thousand parishioners - far more than the official church down the road. That can be a problem sometimes, like when foreign journalists come to interview him.
DONG: (Speaking Chinese).
SCHMITZ: "The police took me on a trip for a few days," Dong tells me, laughing. "They detained me over the weekend."
DONG: (Speaking Chinese, laughter).
SCHMITZ: "They've tapped my phone, and they're listening to us now," he says, giggling. When I mention the possibility of the government having the last laugh - in other words, the possibility of Beijing striking a deal with the Vatican - he stops laughing.
DONG: (Speaking Chinese).
SCHMITZ: "I take orders from the Vatican. If an agreement is made," says Dong, "I'll stop working or do whatever the Vatican asks." Those with knowledge of the talks between the Vatican and Beijing have said an agreement could come soon and that it would likely allow Beijing to choose candidates for bishops whom the Vatican would then approve or veto. Back outside St. Peter's Church in downtown Shanghai, parishioner Xia says she's praying for a good outcome.
XIA: (Through interpreter) We can only pray each day that the government understands and respects church rules, but it's hard for the government to accept change.
SCHMITZ: She says she prays that God will wake up China's government. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai.
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