The Vatican on Saturday said that it and China had renewed a secret and contested agreement on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in the communist country.
It was the second time the accord, which is still provisional, was extended for another two years since it was first reached in 2018. The latest extension had been widely expected, with Pope Francis foreseeing it in an exclusive interview with Reuters on July 2.
The deal was a bid to ease a longstanding divide across mainland China between an underground flock loyal to the pope and a state-backed official church. For the first time since the 1950s, both sides recognised the pope as supreme leader of the Catholic Church.
Critics, including Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, the former archbishop of Hong Kong, have denounced it as a sell-out to the communist authorities. Zen is currently on trial over the use of a charity fund for pro-democracy protesters and critics have accused the Vatican of not doing enough to defend him in public. Zen pleaded not guilty.
The Vatican-China deal centres on cooperation over the appointment of bishops, giving the pope the final and decisive say.
Only six new bishops have been appointed since the deal was struck, which its opponents say proves it is not producing the desired effects. They also point to increasing restrictions on religious freedoms in China for Christians and other minorities.
In the July interview with Reuters, the pope acknowledged that the deal "is going slowly" but that the Church needed to take the long view in China and that an imperfect dialogue was better than no contact at all.
Francis compared the deal's opponents to those who criticised Popes John XXII and Paul VI in the 1960s and 1970s over the so-called small steps policy, in which the Vatican struck sometimes uncomfortable deals with Eastern European communist nations to keep the Church alive during the Cold War and limit its persecution there.
Official Vatican media ran interviews with two cardinals defending the deal.
Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the accord's chief architect, said that while the achievements since 2018 "may seem small," in the context of a conflicted history they were "important steps toward the progressive healing of the wounds inflicted" on the Chinese Church.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, a Filipino whose mother is of Chinese descent, said the challenge was to convince authorities that "belonging to the Church does not represent an obstacle to being a good Chinese citizen".
The Vatican has insisted that the deal is circumscribed to the Church structure in China and is not in itself a precursor to establishing full diplomatic relations with Beijing, which would necessitate the Holy See severing ties with Taiwan.
The Vatican is the last state in Europe to recognise Taiwan, which China views as its own territory, to be taken by force if necessary.
Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said it set great store by the Vatican's "solemn commitment" that the deal was about religious rather than diplomatic or political matters, adding that it hoped the accord would "help improve China's growing religious freedom problem".
The renewal of the Vatican-Beijing deal came as China's Communist Party wrapped up its twice-a-decade congress on Saturday, approving amendments cementing President Xi Jinping's iron grip on the party.
Last month, the Vatican tried to arrange a meeting between Xi, 69, and the pope, 85, while both leaders were in Kazakhstan, but China declined.