A state-run newspaper in China quotes the country's top religious affairs official as saying the Communist government has been in contact with the Vatican over establishing relations. Beijing and the Holy See have had contacts for a number of years, this is the first time the official media have been allowed to carry news of the process.
Analysts see the report as an indication that the Chinese might be ready to take negotiations with the Vatican to a new stage, a year after Pope Benedict the Sixteenth was made head of the Roman Catholic Church and named normalization of ties with China as a priority.
In remarks published by the China Daily on Monday, Ye Xiaowen, director of China's State Administration of Religious Affairs, said the Holy See must meet two conditions in order for normalization to happen.
It must break off ties with rival Taiwan - something the Vatican has long said it would do - and, in Ye's words, stop "meddling" in China's internal affairs.
The latter refers to the dispute over who can appoint Catholic bishops in China. The Vatican selects bishops in most countries - but Beijing is wary of anyone in China paying allegiance to any foreign power.
The communist government and the Vatican broke off ties in 1951, and Catholics have since been forced to attend either state-sanctioned churches whose bishops are appointed by Beijing - or unregistered churches that are subject to periodic crackdowns.
Over the last year, the two sides have made significant progress in bridging their differences, as evidenced by the Vatican's approval of a number of bishops of the state-sanctioned church. Among those approved by both sides last year were the auxiliary bishops of Shanghai and Xian.
Jean Paul Wiest (PRON: weest) is a Catholic scholar with the Ricci Institute at the University of San Francisco, who is currently on a research assignment in China. Speaking to reporters in September, he said more Chinese-named bishops are being approved by both the Church and the communist government - an indication the two sides are moving closer together.
"Right now the situation is that most of those so-called 'illicit' bishops are licit again because they have contacted Rome and Rome validated their ordinations. So, we can say that 85 percent, or maybe 90 percent of the state-sanctioned church are valid bishops, recognized by Rome."
In remarks also published Monday, China's religious administrator repeated Beijing's willingness to consider allowing a visit by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Again there was a condition: Ye Xiaowen said the Dalai Lama must completely abandon any advocacy of Tibetan independence.
China began a decade-long conquest of Tibet in 1949. The Dalai Lama fled to exile in India in 1959, and has not been allowed to visit his homeland since then. His current stance is that Tibet should have autonomy, but not independence.
Ye Xiaowen's remarks came as China prepares to host the World Buddhist Forum this month, the first international religious meeting in the country since the 1949 communist takeover