BEIJING (Reuters) - China and the Vatican have "effective" contacts, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday, after a newspaper report that the Vatican might send a delegation to Beijing before the end of this month, to clinch a deal on the appointment of bishops.
The two sides are in advanced talks to resolve a dispute over such appointments, one of the biggest obstacles to the resumption of diplomatic ties cut almost 70 years ago.
An estimated 12 million Catholics in China are split between an underground Church that swears loyalty to the Vatican and the state-supervised Catholic Patriotic Association.
The Global Times newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, said there were no "disputes on issues of principle" between the two and an agreement could be reached on the bishops.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he had no information to provide on any visit by a Vatican delegation.
"China and the Vatican have all along been maintaining effective contacts," he told a daily news briefing, without elaborating.
China keeps a tight grip on religious groups, despite the government professing to guarantee freedom of belief.
Last month, Beijing's most senior official for religion wrote that religious matters in China cannot be controlled by foreigners.
Another issue to be resolved is self-ruled Taiwan, with which the Vatican maintains formal diplomatic ties, although China claims it as a wayward province.
While restoring diplomatic ties was not part of the talks, full relations would give the church a legal framework to look after all China's Catholics and focus on the community's growth in a country where Protestant churches are already growing fast.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)