BEIJING -- China congratulated former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio on Thursday on his election as pope, but said establishing formal relations would depend on the Vatican cutting ties with Taiwan and ceasing activities Beijing considers interference in its internal affairs.
The country's Catholics, meanwhile, celebrated the election of the new pope with special Masses, underscoring their delicate pursuit of loyalty to the Holy See while remaining within the strict confines set by the officially atheistic ruling Communist Party.
While Chinese Catholics revere the pope, the government has long regarded the Vatican with suspicion and refuses it the right to appoint bishops, an issue of extreme sensitivity for the Holy See.
Beijing's position on Vatican ties is "consistent and clear," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regularly scheduled news conference.
"We congratulate the bishop of Argentina on becoming the new pope," Hua said. "We hope the Roman church, under the leadership of the new pope, can work with China in tandem, make joint efforts, and create favorable conditions for improving ties between the two sides."
Hua repeated China's longstanding demands that the Vatican cut ties with Taiwan, the self-governing democracy that China claims as its own territory, and refrain from interfering in China's internal affairs.
The Vatican has said it is prepared to sever ties with Taiwan if Beijing provides assurances that Chinese Catholics will be allowed to worship freely and without Communist Party restrictions. China has not explicitly stated what it considers interference, although Hua said that included meddling "in the name of religious affairs."
The sides have not had formal ties since China ordered Chinese Catholics to cut links with the Holy See more than 50 years ago. Recent improvements in relations derailed two years ago with Beijing's decision to appoint new bishops considered unacceptable to the Vatican.
China has an estimated 12 million Catholics, millions of whom worship in independent congregations outside the control of the party's Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Priests who reject party control run the risk of severe punishment, including Shanghai's would-be Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who was stripped of his title by the association and remains under virtual house arrest nine months after announcing he was withdrawing from the Patriotic Association and its accompanying official bishops' conference.
Despite such incidents, the Chinese church remains active and on Thursday, Beijing's Church of the Savior in the western Xishiku district was nearly full for a special Mass honoring the new pope.
"We Catholics are very happy and supportive to learn of the ordination of the new pope. We wish the new pope good health and we hope that we Chinese Catholics are in his prayers," parishioner Wang Ying said as she left the service.
Another member of the congregation, retired bureaucrat Danilo Fei, alluded to political disputes and other frictions hobbling ties with the Vatican.
"I just hope the new pope will be able to think of a way," he said.
Associated Press reporter Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.