VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday invited all Roman Catholics in China to unite under his jurisdiction and urged the government in Beijing to restore diplomatic ties and permit religious freedom.

He called China’s state-run Catholic Church “incompatible” with Catholic doctrine but nevertheless made unprecedented overtures toward it.

China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in the government-controlled churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops. Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations that remained loyal to Rome.

In the eagerly awaited letter to the faithful in China, Benedict insisted on his right to appoint bishops, but said he trusted that an agreement could be reached with the Beijing authorities on nominations. The Vatican would like to have a formula similar to the one it has with Vietnam, another communist country, where the Vatican proposes a few names and the government selects one.

Significantly, Benedict revoked previous Vatican-issued restrictions on contacts with the clergy of the official church, and recognized that some Chinese faithful have no choice but to attend officially recognized Masses. The letter was the most significant effort by Benedict to balance his pastoral concerns for the up to 12 million Roman Catholics in China who are divided between an official church – the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association – and an underground church that is not registered with the authorities.

In a sign the pope hoped the letter would be read widely, the Vatican translated the letter into five languages – including Mandarin in both traditional and simplified characters – issued it with two documents highlighting key points, included a prepared statement by the Vatican spokesman, and posted the letter in Chinese on the Vatican’s home page.

The text was believed to have been sent to the Beijing government in recent days as a courtesy. However, the vice chairman of the Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian, said Saturday after its release that he had not seen the letter and that the church had no immediate plans to read it out to the faithful or distribute it.

Qin Gang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement posted to the ministry’s Web site that China would “continue to have a frank, constructive dialogue with the Vatican in order to resolve differences between the two sides.”

The statement called on the Vatican to sever ties with rival Taiwan and not interfere in Beijing’s internal affairs in the name of religion.

“We hope that the Vatican take practical action and does not create new barriers,” Qin said, without elaborating.

On several occasions, Benedict praised Catholics who resisted pressure to join the official church and paid a price for it “with the shedding of their blood.”

But he urged them to forgive and reconcile with others for the sake of unifying the church.

Tellingly, Benedict referred repeatedly to the “Catholic Church in China,” without distinguishing between the divisions – an indication of his aim to see the two united and in communion with Rome.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the revocation of the 1988 restrictions on contacts with the clergy of the official church was “significant” because it meant that the Catholic Church in China did not require special Vatican regulation.

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AP-ES-06-30-07 0849EDT