Beijing: Religious matters in China cannot be controlled by foreigners, Beijing’s seniormost official for religion wrote in a Communist Party journal, amid talks with the Vatican to resolve a dispute over the appointment of Catholic bishops.

Pope Francis had voiced optimism in June that ties between the Vatican and China were improving, as the two sides were in advanced talks to settle one of the biggest obstacles to resuming diplomatic ties that were cut almost 70 years ago.

Catholics in China are split between those in “underground” communities that recognise the pope and those belonging to a state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association where bishops are appointed by the government in collaboration with local Church communities.

While restoring diplomatic relations were not part of the ongoing talks, full relations would give the Church a legal framework to look after all of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics and move on to focus on Catholic growth in a country where Protestant churches are already growing fast.

The Vatican currently maintains full diplomatic ties with Taiwan, not China, which views Taiwan as merely a wayward province.

Writing in the latest issue of the bi-monthly Communist Party theoretical journal Qiushi, or Seeking Truth, Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, said China had to remain in charge on religious matters.

“There is no affiliate relationship between our country’s religions and foreign religions. Our country’s religious groups and religious matters do not accept domination by foreign forces,” Wang wrote, without making direct reference to any religion or the talks with the Vatican.

Religion in China has to follow the principle of “Sinification” under the guidance of the party, he added.

China’s constitution proclaims freedom of belief, but in reality the officially atheist ruling Communist Party keeps a tight rein over all religious groups, an area of frequent concern for Western governments and rights groups.

Wang said that China guaranteed the rights of believers, and that it was wrong to believe religion could be left free of government supervision or that it should be forcefully curbed or even wiped out. Still, religion should not be allowed to interfere in administrative, legal or education matters, he added.

“The separation of government and religion must be upheld,” Wang wrote.