Pope Francis called on Wednesday for freedom of worship for Catholics in China, a religious minority that has faced historic harassment and persecution in the communist country, causing friction between the Vatican and Beijing.
Francis invoked prayers during his weekly audience that the Gospel "may be preached in its fullness, beauty and (in) freedom ... for the good of the Catholic Church and of all Chinese society".
Recalling that May 24 marked a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China, the pontiff said he was close "to our brothers and sisters in China", and offered "a special thought to all those who suffer, pastors and the faithful".
China’s constitution proclaims freedom of belief but in reality the officially atheist ruling Communist Party keeps a tight rein over religious activities.
Relations between the Vatican and Communist China have been difficult for decades, but in 2018 the two sides reached a historic and contested agreement on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in China.
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 say the accord, which is provisional and secret, amounts to Vatican appeasement of China's authoritarian government, and has not substantially improved the conditions of Catholics there.
Last month, the Vatican said Chinese authorities had unilaterally appointed a new bishop to Shanghai in an apparent violation of the bilateral pact between the two states, last renewed in October.