Catholic bishops from China will for the first time attend a major Vatican meeting starting this week, the Holy See said on Monday, the first concrete sign of a thaw in relations with Beijing following a landmark agreement. “There will be two bishops from continental China. They were invited by the Pope,” Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri told a news conference. “I think they are already on their way to Rome.” Baldisseri said it was the first time the Beijing government has allowed bishops to leave the country to attend a Vatican synod, a meeting which takes place every few years on a different topic. The deal, which was in the making for more than 10 years and signed on September 22, gives the Vatican a long-sought say in the choice of bishops in China, though critics have labelled it a sellout to the Communist government. China’s approximately 12 million Catholics have been split between an underground church swearing loyalty to the Vatican and the state-supervised Catholic Patriotic Association. Vatican signs historic deal with China on bishop appointments One of the bishops, Joseph Guo Jincai, was ordained into the government-backed church without papal permission and had been excommunicated by the Vatican. As part of the September 22 agreement, the pope lifted his excommunication and recognised his legitimacy. The other bishop is John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, who had been ordained with papal permission and was already recognised by the Vatican. Both will take part in the month-long synod that starts on Wednesday to discuss the role of young people in the 1.2 billion-member Church. “In the past the Holy See invited bishops from continental China but they were never able to attend,” Baldisseri said. He said it was a result of the improved relations between the Vatican and Beijing following the agreement. The Vatican has said the absence of a deal could have led to a schism between Chinese Catholics that would have been difficult to heal. Concerns remain, however, over the fate of about 12 priests and bishops believed to be in detention in China. Three sources aware of the substance of the provisional deal say the plight of a dozen or so detained priests and bishops, some elderly, remains unresolved and will be subject to ongoing Vatican efforts. Beijing has provided little clear information about their fate despite repeated Vatican requests in recent years, the sources said. What does the Vatican agreement on bishop appointments mean for China’s Catholics? A senior Vatican source said the precise number still believed to be in detention was not clear. Some of those held are feared to have died in detention, according to Catholic priests and activists who monitor the situation on the mainland. The Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese issued a statement in June protesting the renewed detention of Bishop Cui Tai from Hebei province in April, urging the release of all “unreasonably and illegally detained clergy”. They also highlighted the detention of Baoding Bishop James Su Zhimin. Now 86, Su has been held since his arrest in October, 1997 but no details of his whereabouts or condition are known. “The reality is this deal is a small step, a very small step … there is much hard work ahead on unresolved issues,” said one cleric familiar with the pact.