As Beijing and the Vatican reportedly struggle to reach an accord over the appointment of Chinese bishops, a delegation of Catholic bishops from Taiwan is in Rome this week, preparing for a possible audience with the pope on Monday.
"We will likely meet with the pope on Monday," a secretary surnamed Liao traveling with the delegation told RFA. "We don't have details [of what is to be discussed], just a rough idea of the arrangements."
"They have mostly been meeting with ministers, cardinals, and bishops this week," he said, adding that he won't hear about the content of any meeting with the pope until after his return to Taiwan.
Repeated attempts to reach the Rev. Chen Ko, who is also accompanying the delegation, were unsuccessful on Thursday.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing may have stalled following a new set of restrictions on religious activities implemented by the Chinese government since February.
Liao said the Vatican now appears to be distancing itself from talks with Beijing.
"There are issues such as the fact that there is no religious freedom in China," Liao said. "There won't be any progress unless both sides are able to make concessions and reach a consensus."
"Otherwise, it's not going to be easy; it's hard to get past these problems."
Sources told RFA that the newly amended Religious Affairs Regulations had sparked a fresh round of persecution of religious believers, throwing the future of any deal into doubt.
An employee who answered the phone at the Bureau of Religious Affairs under China's cabinet, the State Council, declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Thursday.
"I can't answer your questions," the employee said. "This is the duty room, not the main office, and I can't give you their number."
Calls to the foreign ministry press office in Beijing rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Hope for meeting
The seven bishops from Taiwan are hoping to meet the pope next week on their first visit to the Holy See since December 2008, after a farewell dinner hosted by Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen and her devoutly Catholic vice-president Chen Chien-jen.
The Vatican is one of a handful of states to maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, still officially governed by the last remnant of the Republic of China formed by Sun Yat-sen's 1911 revolution that toppled imperial rule.
There had been concerns in Taiwan that any rapprochement between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing could lead to the Vatican switching its recognition to the People's Republic of China, which refuses to accept dual recognition under its "One China" policy.
Mainland Chinese bishop Han Yingjin, one of the few Catholic bishops to have been recognized by both the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association and the Vatican, said the Taiwan bishops'
meeting with the pope could affect the outcome.
"I think that this will definitely have an effect, with so many bishops going; it's bound to affect the question of diplomatic ties," Han told RFA. "I think the Vatican will take them and their opinions into account ... and reflect on them, as well as some of the views of the Taiwan government."
But he said that the eventual switching of diplomatic recognition is inevitable.
According to the Catholic news website Crux, Taiwan has fewer than 300,000 Catholics—just two percent of the democratic island's population—and seven dioceses. A number of bishops are retired or soon to retire, it said.
Taiwan's ambassador to the Holy See, Lee Shih-ming, was quoted in official news reports as saying that the Taiwan bishops are grateful for the love and concern shown them by the pope.
"They are of the opinion that there is a lot of fake news in the rumors circulating about relations between Taiwan and the Vatican," Lee said.
"In fact, the pope has sent out a number of high-level envoys to Taiwan in the past year or so, and has organized a number of events aimed at promoting international exchanges in Taiwan," he said. "The Holy Father also prayed for Taiwan when it was hit by natural disasters."
Lee said the delegation of bishops has the full backing and encouragement of President Tsai.
However, repeated requests for interviews with members of Taiwan's diplomatic mission to the Holy See received no response on Thursday.
Previous reports had indicated that China and the Vatican were on track to sign a deal in March, but a worldwide outcry from Catholics opposed to China's regime of religious controls may have changed that.
The Vatican had been hoping to eliminate the division between bishops and churches recognized by the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association and those appointed by Rome, which would result in an expansion of the Catholic Church in China.
But a group of leading Catholics in Hong Kong and the U.S. said in an open letter that they were "deeply shocked and disappointed" by the moves, citing church articles as saying that the right to nominate and appoint bishops belongs only to the Church, not to any secular body such as the atheist Chinese Communist Party.
The letter said that religious persecution continues unabated under the administration of President Xi Jinping amid heavy-handed controls by religious affairs officials, and that any deal could affect the Church's "holiness and moral integrity."
Taiwan archbishop John Hung told RFA in April that a deal was unlikely because Beijing would never recognize the Vatican's authority over Catholics.
"The Chinese mainland doesn't recognize papal authority," Hung said. "Xi Jinping is the leader of the country, so how is he going to give up his power? And the Catholic Church won't abdicate its own authority, so they will never sign."
"There is only one pope in the Catholic Church," he said.
Hung also cited a recent white paper on religious affairs issued by Beijing that asserts that all religions are subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party within China's borders.
Religious believers must "be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people ... and support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party," the white paper said.
"Is [China] going to open itself up to religious freedom and allow the Vatican in? To send in foreign missionaries? No way!" Hung said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hsia Hsiao-hwa for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.