As China's estimated 12 million Catholics quietly await the arrival of Pope Benedict's expected letter on issues affecting the mainland church, the world continues to guess what will be the next turn in the decades-long tortuous efforts to normalise ties between the mainland and the Vatican. Some are optimistic that hints from Beijing about the importance of faith in healing social wounds could herald an imminent breakthrough, while others remain cynical about how much Beijing will be willing to relinquish its grasp on organised religion. Talks to normalise ties began in 1987, and at the centre of the 20 years of conflict and courtship has been the issue of control over the mainland's Catholic Church. This has been underscored by the mainland's unilateral appointment of bishops since 1958, when Beijing appointed two bishops without the consent of the Holy See. Last year, three bishops were appointed by the state without the Pope's blessing. Beijing's appointments have been interpreted as the atheist government's reluctance to give up its control of religion and ideology. 'China is not ready yet [to normalise ties with the Vatican],' Beatrice Leung Kit-fun, a Sino-Vatican relations expert at Macau's Inter-University Institute, said. Describing Beijing's approach to negotiating with the Vatican as 'schizophrenic', Professor Leung said that on the one hand China had agreed to continue talks, but on the other hand it did not want the process to come to fruition. 'Resuming diplomatic ties will mean that China will be forced to loosen up its grip on ideology,' she said. 'Beijing sees religion as a cohesive force for social movements because it can galvanise many such movements like the Falun Gong did. The Communist Party doesn't want to see this happen, especially when its political system has been in a very fragile state over the past two years.' China's courtship of the Vatican has been seen as an effort to improve a reputation tarnished by its poor human rights record and to win support from Catholic countries in the west. But as the hosting of international events such as the Olympic Games next year and World Expo in 2010 continue to bolster China's image as a rising world power, Professor Leung said the courtship had fallen down Beijing's list of priorities. 'Now China has become a major power, and its participation is essential in many international issues ... so normalisation [with the Vatican] is a rather low priority now,' she said. Heilongjiang Bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi , who was approved by the Holy See in 1995 but has not been recognised by Beijing, said most of the government-appointed bishops had received a covert blessing from the Pope either before or after their appointments. Most older bishops were first approved by the government and later sought consent from the Vatican, while the younger generation were first secretly recognised by the Vatican and then their names were handed to the government for approval, he said. 'The trick is to give face to the Chinese government so their authority does not appear to be undermined,' Bishop Wei said. Professor Leung had seen a central government document dated August 17, 1999, in which mainland authorities said that because normalisation efforts were under way the official church should speed up the ordination of its own bishops to counter the potential influence of underground bishops when ties resumed. No one body announces the official appointments but, since 1957, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association has been overseeing the administration of affairs in the officially registered church. The association claims to be autonomous from the Roman Pontiff and this assertion has been criticised as a deviation from Catholicism and prompted church-goers loyal to the Pope to turn to unregistered churches, or the so-called underground church movement, because they saw the association as unauthorised. But in recent years the divisions within the church have gradually been reconciled and religious workers say they are co-operating quietly in some parts of China. In what was seen as a gesture of reconciliation, the Pope invited three government-recognised bishops and Bishop Wei to the Synod of Bishops assembly as full members in 2005. Brushing off criticism that the association unilaterally appointed bishops, vice-chairman Bishop Liu Bainian said it was just an administrative issue. 'It's very important to choose bishops who are suitable for China ... They have to be patriotic and have to love the church,' he said. 'We can't appoint someone who will undermine and be unco-operative with authorities. The people of China see that most underground bishops appointed by Rome are not in support of China's socialist political system,' he said. Though the unilateral ordinations have upset negotiations, some people are encouraged by the subtle changes in the government's attitude towards religion. Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of the Catholic AsiaNews news agency and an expert on Catholicism in China, said: 'China and its government have changed their views towards religion in general and also on the Vatican. 'This means that the government and the foreign ministry - because they now have more contact with the outside world - understand that the Catholic Church is not a political power.' Though the grip on religions affairs is still tight, there are signs Beijing is now trying to fill its people's spiritual void to heal the many social problems left by almost 30 years of the pursuit of economic growth. Government leaders have often called for religion to play a role in building a harmonious society. This was highlighted by an international forum on Buddhism in Hangzhou city in Zhejiang province last year and a similar event dedicated to Taoism on Xian and in Hong Kong later this month. 'The government has realised that to remedy social problems, they need a spiritual vision, and so it realised that to give people religious freedom is a way to heal the country,' Father Cervellera said. But a willing government is not enough, according to one Beijing-based priest who is also an official with the association's municipal branch. 'The government and the foreign ministry are willing to work on the resumption of diplomatic ties with the Vatican, but the problem is that the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and some officials with the Religious Affairs Administration aren't,' the priest said. When normalisation does come, Father Cervellera said, the government should try to figure out a new role for the association. 'They can continue to exist, but they have to find another way of doing their job ... If they are a Catholic organisation, they should stay under the authority of a bishop, because this is a Catholic faith,' Father Cervellera said. But Bishop Liu insists the association would continue efforts to ensure China's church was not 'exploited by foreign influences' after normalisation. '[The association] should also prevent them from being used for political purposes and prevent history from repeating itself,' Bishop Liu said, referring to the political change experienced in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.