Rumours of an impending deal between China and the Vatican have been swirling for more than two years: yet they acquired renewed urgency this week, as various sources claimed the two parties were on the verge of signing a “historic agreement”.

A major announcement could come as soon as this month or next. This can only mean that, having been kicked out of newly established Communist China in 1951, the Holy See is getting ready to abandon its nunciature (the equivalent of an embassy for the Vatican) in Taipei, to switch allegiance to Beijing, in spite of mainland China being in the midst of one of its most severe anti-religious campaigns in recent memory.

The unconfirmed reports that have been allowed to filter out so far do not clarify anything much, and have even added a level of confusion. Some sources from Taiwan, whose claims were transmitted to the media by Taiwan’s foreign ministry spokesman, Andrew Lee, said the development would not have “diplomatic or political connotations”. But mainland China does not allow anybody, no matter how holy, to maintain an embassy – or a nunciature – in both Taipei and Beijing.

A global China must ask itself awkward questions. Is it ready?

The agreement, according to what is known so far, would start by addressing the problem of who gets to nominate the bishops. According to the Catholic Church, which is headed by the Pope, this is a job for the Holy Father. According to the Chinese Communist Party, however, this task has to be done by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, an organisation established in China in 1957 to supervise China’s Catholics (presently estimated at 12 million). Through the years, a number of bishops in China have been approved by both the Vatican and the Patriotic Association, with the exception of seven, more problematic ones, active in China but outside the Roman church’s benediction. The deal may include a final recognition of these seven.

Of all the times to be undergoing such a rapprochement, this may seem the least likely one. It is not only Muslim Uygurs in Xinjiang who are being discouraged from their religious inclinations but Christians nationwide, too, are seeing a stern turning back of some of the religious freedoms many had been taking for granted. Crosses are being taken down from many churches with renewed vehemence, churches themselves are being shut down, and there have been reports of Bibles being burned in public in Henan province.

Gay shift a’ la India? Slowly but surely, Japan is coming out

While the crackdown is hitting mostly Christians from independent churches (numbering around 40 to 50 million), and not Catholics, the sight of burning Bibles should be of concern to the Pope. Nonetheless, at least two Catholic churches have been demolished recently. One, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, built in 1903 and a popular pilgrimage site for Chinese Catholics in Henan, was torn down in June. A second one in Liangwang, Jinan, built in the 1920s and operating as a “house church”, was bulldozed in August, without prior warning.

This is not happening in a vacuum, but as part of President Xi Jinping’s renewed emphasis on Communist discipline and ideology, which has seen stronger controls also on non-Uygur Muslims and Buddhists. Last month, the Grand Mosque in Weizhou, Ningxia, was the scene of a tense stand-off between the faithful and the police, who had threatened to tear down parts of it.

What dissent from Hong Kong and the US means for a liberalising pope

People close to the Vatican, however, say Pope Francis, a Jesuit from Argentina born Mario Bergoglio, has not been swayed by Xi’s intensified ideological bent, or by the growing anti-religious repression. His China dream is a long-held one, and most bishops and cardinals who have tried to dissuade the Pope from a hasty deal with the authorities in Beijing have been sidelined, according to confidential sources.

Four years ago, the papal plane was allowed to fly over China for the first time, as the pontiff was on his way to visiting South Korea, an open-sky gesture that moved him. On that occasion, the Pope sent a public greeting to Xi, and invoked “the divine blessings of peace and well-being” upon China. Since then, the Pope has not stopped dreaming – not only about flying over China, but also landing in the country. The past two years have seen increased activity on this matter, which shows that whatever announcement might be in the offing, this is not a last-minute distraction from the Church’s widening sexual abuse scandals, a long-standing issue that has been flaring up again this summer with revelations of severe child abuse in the American Catholic Church. Pope Francis could have decided to invest his energies in addressing the single, gravest issue that has been turning Catholics away from the church. Instead he has chosen a perilous China dream.

Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer based in Hong Kong