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Vatican City – Pope Francis urged Chinese Catholics on Wednesday to trust him and make concrete gestures of reconciliation following a landmark deal over bishop appointments that is aimed at ending decades of estrangement between the Vatican and Beijing.

In a letter to the Chinese faithful, Francis also called for greater dialogue between local priests and government authorities to ensure that ordinary church activities can be carried out, while encouraging the opening of “a new chapter” in official bilateral cooperation.

China’s estimated 12 million Catholics are split between those belonging to the government-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which is outside the pope’s authority, and an underground church loyal to the pope. Underground priests and parishioners are frequently detained and harassed.

The letter appeared aimed at acknowledging the deep reservations of some underground faithful, for whom the deal represents a sell-out to the Communist government and betrayal of their decades of loyalty to the pope.

Francis acknowledged these Chinese “sense themselves somehow abandoned” and expressed his “sincere admiration” for their fidelity over the years. But he asked them to trust him.

The aim, he said, is to “initiate an unprecedented process that we hope will help to heal the wounds of the past, restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics, and lead to a phase of greater fraternal cooperation.”

The letter follows the deal signed Saturday governing the naming of bishops in China, an issue that has split the church and vexed relations for decades. The agreement regularizes the status of seven bishops who had been appointed by Beijing over the years without papal consent, and sets out a process of dialogue going forward to name new ones. Francis says he, not Beijing, ultimately will name new bishops.

While the deal addressed a crucial aspect of church governance in China, it didn’t address more pastoral issues of unifying split communities, which the letter published Wednesday aims to do.

Francis – and before him Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II – had tried to unite the two.

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