Pope Francis "loves China" and hopes the Vatican and the Communist country can heal their strained relationship, Chinese media has quoted a Vatican official as saying.
Speaking in Beijing where he was attending an organ transplant conference, the head of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, relayed the Pope's love for the country, Reuters reports.
"Pope Francis loves China and loves the people of China, its history and population. We hope China can have a great future," the state-run Global Times quoted him as saying.
Since 1951, the Communist Party has refused the authority of the pope, with local Chinese Catholic bodies appointing their own bishops. China cut ties with the Vatican after the Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope's authority.
While CPCA clergy chosen by the Communist party are sometimes accepted by Rome, Vatican-appointed bishops are not recognized by the government.
The Chinese government has also introduced restrictive pieces of legislation, such as the Revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, which seeks to force house churches to join the state's official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). Churches that refuse to register are banned.
It is estimated that millions of Catholics in China are forced to worship underground.
In June, the Vatican expressed "grave concern" for a Chinese bishop, Peter Shao Zhumin, who disappeared after being "forcibly removed" from his office several weeks ago.
In a statement released on June 26, the Vatican said: "The Holy See is observing with grave concern the personal situation of Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, forcibly removed from his episcopal see some time ago," the Vatican said. "The diocesan Catholic community and his relatives have no news or reasons for his removal, nor do they know where he is being held."
The Holy See said it was "profoundly saddened for this and other similar episodes that unfortunately do not facilitate ways of understanding."
"We are all invited to pray for Bishop Shao Zhumin and the path of the Catholic church in China," the Holy See's statement concluded and expressed hope Shao may return as soon as possible to the diocese and "be assured the possibility of serenely exercising his episcopal ministry."
In response, China said it opposed outside interference in its internal affairs.
Open Doors USA ranks China as the 39th worst country in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians, according to the ministry's 2017 World Watch List.
"As Christians are the largest social force in China not controlled by the Communist Party, there are increasing efforts to bring them under state control," an Open Doors fact sheet states.