The senior spokesman of China's state-controlled Catholic church claimed that he did not formally invite Pope Benedict XVI to make a landmark visit to China after the pontiff refused to confirm speculation of an imminent breakthrough in relations between Beijing and the Vatican.
Liu Bainian, vice president of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, reportedly said he "hoped" the German-born pope would one day visit China, in an interview with Repubblica – a daily Italian newspaper.
The earlier comment prompted speculation of an imminent breakthrough in Sino-Vatican relations, which Benedict played down by stating, "I can't talk about that now. It's a bit complicated."
The state-operated newspaper, China Daily, reported on Thursday that Liu indeed "hoped the Pope could visit China and celebrate mass but only after normalization of diplomatic ties."
Liu added the visit would also be determined on the pope severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the self-governed island considered by Beijing as an illegitimate breakaway territory.
Beijing ended formal relations with the Vatican after the ruling Communist Party forced the nation's Roman Catholic Church to sever ties with the papacy in 1957.
China's estimated 12 million Catholics are split between the state-approved "above-ground" church and the unregistered "underground" church that rejects government ties and answers only to Rome.
Though it recognizes the pope as a great spiritual guide, the government-controlled church regularly assigns bishops without tacit Vatican-approval.
Despite disputes over the assignments, the pope has already approved most of the state-assigned bishops.
On June 30, the pope issued a letter asking to China's Catholics asking for reconciliation, but maintaining that the only Vatican has the power to assign bishops though the government may recommend candidates.
Liu criticized the letter Thursday, stating that the papacy was causing "interference in [an] internal Chinese affair."
On Wednesday, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association celebrated 50 years alongside officials of the state's religious affairs bureau.
Of the 5,000 people invited, only 200 people were present for the assembly, according to a report release by Catholic-affiliated AsiaNews, which added that those refusing to attend were still loyal to the papacy.
Xinhua, a state-owned newspaper, reported that 40 bishops and 20 priests were present for the gathering, but made no mention of the earlier invitations.