BEIJING -- A senior Vatican cardinal will attend a national sports meet here tomorrow in an unprecedented visit underscoring mounting rumors of a possible rapprochement between China and the Roman Catholic Church.
The breakthrough visit has been preceded this summer by growing indirect contacts between the world's largest and smallest states and strong signals from both sides of the desire for warmer relations, which were severed in 1958.
The timing of the visit conforms with speculation that China may seek to normalize ties with the church to dramatically buttress its bid to be host to the Olympics in 2000, a bid that will be voted upon by the International Olympic Committee on Sept. 23.
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray left the Vatican for Beijing yesterday in answer to an invitation to attend the opening ceremonies of China's National Games, according to wire service reports from the Vatican.
He is the highest-ranking Vatican official to visit China since the Communists came to power in 1949.
A Vatican spokesman described the trip as an effort "to bear witness to the sincere desire of the Holy See to enter into $H contact with the reality of the great Chinese nation."
State-controlled news media in China yesterday did not announce the visit.
China and the Vatican broke off diplomatic ties after China ordered its Catholics to renounce the pope's authority and join state-controlled churches under its Patriotic Catholic Association. Since then, China has frequently accused the Vatican of meddling in its internal affairs.
Beijing says diplomatic relations can not be restored until the Vatican ends ties with Taiwan, which China considers a maverick province. The Vatican is the last European state to recognize Taiwan.
The Chinese state Catholic Church has about 4 million members, but an even greater number of Chinese Catholics are believed to remain loyal to the pope.
The Vatican's motivation for improving relations with China may be to attempt to heal a worsening rift between Chinese Catholics attending the state-sanctioned churches and those attending illegal, underground churches, according to a recent newsletter by the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong.
"The division between the two has only grown worse with time, and the pope no doubt wants to achieve some sort of reconciliation before the situation gets any worse," the group said. "Indeed, the pontiff has said on more than one occasion of late that the time for action on this issue is now."
"Vatican officials are increasingly taking a more positive view of the Chinese government, especially in light of the recent rapid growth in economic openness there," it added.
The cardinal's visit has been preceded by growing signs that both sides want to improve relations, including what a Vatican spokesman described Aug. 21 as "indirect contacts between China and the Holy See [that] have intensified in the last few years."
These secret talks began in the 1980s, broke off with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and only resumed this year, according to a Hong Kong newspaper report.
Perhaps in tune with the talks, China this spring is believed to have released the last of the Catholic priests that it was known to be holding in prison. Other Chinese clerics remain under various forms of extrajudicial detention.
In June, Pope John Paul II responded by traveling to Macerata, Italy, the birthplace of Matteo Ricci, a renowned 16th-century Jesuit missionary to China. The pontiff said he hoped it would not be long before he could realize his "strong desire" to visit China.
Two weeks ago, China's Foreign Ministry expressed a willingness to improve relations with the church but again stressed that the Vatican must sever its ties with Taiwan and not interfere in Chinese affairs.
The next day, the Vatican responded warmly: "The Holy See has noted with satisfaction the willingness expressed by the Beijing authorities to normalize relations."