VATICAN CITY/BEIJING — The Vatican and China on Thursday renewed an agreement on the appointment of bishops in China and the Vatican promised to push the communist government to allow more freedom of religion.
The accord gives the pope the final say over the appointment of Chinese bishops, and the Chinese government allows all of them, including those hailing from a state-backed Church, to recognize the pope's authority.
But conservative Catholics have accused the Vatican of selling out to Beijing and last month U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked the Vatican not to renew the deal. He set off a diplomatic incident by saying the Holy See was compromising its moral authority.
Beijing and the Vatican announced the two-year renewal in separate statements.
"It must be recognized that there are still many situations of great suffering. The Holy See is very aware of this, it acknowledges it, and will not fail to bring it to the attention of the Chinese government in order favor a more fruitful exercising of religious freedom," the Vatican said in an article in the official newspaper Osservatore Romano.
It did not elaborate, but Church groups in Hong Kong have said Catholics and other Christians in China have faced restrictions such as not being allowed to bring their children to Mass.
"The road is still long and not without difficulties," the article said.
The article said the accord was the result of a "continuation of thought" by Pope Francis' predecessors and that the draft "had already been approved by Pope Benedict XVI" before he retired in 2013.
This appeared to be addressed to conservative Catholics, many of whom continue to revere Benedict and distrust Pope Francis.
When Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Pio Parolin mentioned at a conference earlier this month that Benedict had approved the draft, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong and a strong opponent of the deal, accused Parolin of lying.
The article acknowledged that in the past two years only a few bishops had been appointed.
"Even if statistically this does not seem to a great result, it is a good start," the article said.
Many believe it will eventually lead to diplomatic relations with Beijing, meaning that the Vatican would have to sever ties with Taiwan.
Parolin said on Wednesday that talk of diplomatic relations was premature and that accord was strictly religious and not political.
"The two sides will continue to keep in close communication and consultation, and continue to push forward the process of improving relations," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing.