By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis urged China's leaders on Wednesday to move ahead with "trust, courage and farsightedness" after Beijing and the Vatican struck a landmark agreement on the appointment of bishops.
In Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said China was sincere about wanting better relations with the Vatican and that the bishops' agreement was an important step forward.
The accord, which critics have called a sellout to the Communist government, gives the Vatican a say in the choice of bishops in China. It could also be a precursor to restoring diplomatic ties with Beijing after more than 70 years. The Vatican only has diplomatic ties with Taiwan, China's rival.
In a message addressed to Chinese Catholics, Francis said that while they should be good citizens of their country, they should not shrink from offering "a word of criticism" when necessary to defend human dignity.
China's 12 million Catholics have been split between an underground church swearing loyalty to the Vatican and the state-supervised Catholic Patriotic Association. The Vatican said the absence of a deal could have led to a schism between Chinese Catholics that would have been difficult to heal.
The pope's five-page message included a section in which he addressed Chinese government leaders directly, saying he wanted to "renew my invitation to continue, with trust, courage and farsightedness, the dialogue begun some time ago".
He said the Vatican would "work sincerely for the growth of genuine friendship with the Chinese people".
With the accord, which both sides have said is provisional and will not be published , the Beijing government effectively recognises the pope as leader of all Catholics in China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang welcomed the agreement, saying: "China is willing to continue to meet the Vatican side halfway and have constructive dialogue, increasing understanding and accumulating mutual trust, to promote the process of continuing to improve relations."
Francis said he realised that some Chinese Catholics who have been persecuted for their loyalty to him might feel abandoned but urged them to have faith in the new arrangement.
"Open your hearts and minds to discern the merciful plan of God, who asks us to rise above personal prejudices and conflicts between groups and communities, in order to undertake a courageous fraternal journey in the light of an authentic culture of encounter," he said.
Rights groups accuse China of human right violations, something that critics of the agreement have highlighted.
The pope said Chinese Catholics should love and serve their country, but added their faith mandated them to defend values.
"At times, this may also require of them the effort to offer a word of criticism... for the sake of building a society that is more just, humane and respectful of the dignity of each person," he said.
New bishops will now first be proposed by members of local Catholic communities together with Chinese authorities. The names will then be sent to the Vatican and the pope will have the final say.
As part of the deal, the pope recognised the legitimacy of seven bishops whom the government named without papal approval.
Since the deal was signed, the Vatican has not mentioned Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a rebel province. China does not allow countries to have diplomatic ties with both it and Taiwan.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)