(CNN)The Vatican and China have signed a provisional agreement to allow jointly-approved Catholic bishops in China for the first time, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said in a recorded press statement Saturday.
Vatican: Catholic bishops to return to China
It marks a significant step towards re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. Ties were severed in 1951 after an alleged assassination plot against Chinese leaders involving a Catholic priest.
The agreement will allow the Holy See and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to jointly approve the appointment of bishops in China. Until now, bishops appointed by either the Vatican or the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association were not recognized by the other party.
Officially there are six million Catholics in China but numbers could be nearly double that if those not following the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association are included, according to a study conducted by the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong.
"This is not the end of a process, it's the beginning," Burke said. "This has been about dialogue, patient listening on both sides, even when people come from very different standpoints. The objective of the accord is not political but pastoral. Allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities."