Beijing and the Vatican are on the verge of an agreement on the status of China's Catholic Church and the controversial appointment of bishops by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reports indicate.
A report in the Wall Street Journal on Friday cited two people close to negotiations as saying that a deal was very close.
In Taipei, Taiwan foreign affairs spokesman Li Hsien-chang said the democratic island's officials had a similar understanding of the situation.
"I think lately it is looking as if the two sides will sign an agreement on religious matters," Li told a news conference.
Asked if a deal would mean that the Vatican would break off diplomatic relations with Taipei in favor of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, Li said not necessarily.
"We have been assured by the Holy See that this agreement is purely on religious matters," Li said. "Naturally, we don't take this lightly, because this agreement on religious matters is a very important agreement between China and the Vatican."
"We are paying very close attention to developments," he said, adding that his ministry's information was very reliable, and that there was a "smooth flow" of information from the Holy See at all times.
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.
A switch in recognition?
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.
However, an employee who answered the phone at the embassy of the Catholic church in Taipei declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Friday.
"Sorry, we won't be commenting on this matter," the employee said.
Archbishop Hung Shan-chuan of Taipei also declined to comment, saying he hadn't been informed.
"I don't know ... [the Vatican] never asked for my opinion, and what could I say anyway?" Hung said. "I just told [my superior] that they could set up diplomatic ties but that they shouldn't harm Taiwan. He said they wouldn't harm Taiwan."
"Of course I believe him. He's my superior; why wouldn't I believe him?"
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Vatican and China look set to sign a landmark agreement later this month intended to reunite China’s state-backed Catholic church with the "underground" church that is still loyal to Rome, and which operates without official state approval.
While the deal could still fall through or be delayed by "unforeseen events," it could mean that Beijing recognizes the pope as the head of the Catholic Church in China, the paper said.
Such a concession would be matched by the recognition and rehabilitation of seven Chinese bishops who were excommunicated by the pope after being appointed by Beijing without the approval of the Vatican, it said.
A deal seems likely
Kung Ling-hsin, chairman of the journalism department at Taiwan Ming Chuan University, said the reports come amid indications from a number of reliable media outlets in recent months that a deal is likely.
He said he believed that the Holy See would never break diplomatic relations with any country, but that any religious deal could be seen as a semi-diplomatic relationship.
But Yang Sen-hong, president of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, said there was no compatibility between the world views of Beijing and the Vatican.
"There is a war of values between atheism and God, and it can't possibly come to anything worthwhile," Yang told RFA. "China has been putting out fake news with the aim of confusing the world, as they always do."
Sources told RFA in May that China's newly amended Religious Affairs Regulations had sparked a fresh round of persecution of religious believers, throwing the future of any deal into doubt.
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, and 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."
Making religion 'more Chinese'
Catholic church members in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi and in northern Hebei province told RFA last month that Catholic churches are being swept up in a nationwide campaign to make religions more "Chinese," and more loyal to the ruling party's ideology.
In August, churches in Jiangxi's Fenyi county and Hebei's Luzhou diocese were ordered to display the Chinese national flag and a portrait of President Xi Jinping in their main meeting area, as well as handing out government propaganda on "socialist values" to their members, prompting an outcry among believers.
Priests of the Luzhou Diocese signed an open letter to the Communist Party's United Front Work Department and the State Bureau of Religious Affairs in Beijing, calling for an explanation.
A Catholic churchgoer in Luzhou said that he supported the priests, but declined to comment further.
"Of course this is happening," the churchgoer said in an interview conducted on Aug. 23. "We don't agree with it, because there are a lot of issues involved, but I don't want to answer you on the phone."
Repeated calls to the State Bureau of Religious Affairs rang unanswered during office hours at the time of the interview.
Beijing asserts that all religions are subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party within China's borders, and that 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."
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in recent decades.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in non-recognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Reported by Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.