Pope calls on new Chinese leaders to respect religions

Pope Benedict XVI called Tuesday on China's new leaders to "esteem the contributions of the religions" during his traditional Christmas message.

Speaking of "the high task that awaits them," the pontiff said he hoped the new leaders would "help build a fraternal society for that noble people and of the whole world."

China and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951 after the latter recognised the Nationalist Chinese government in Taipei, a rival to the communist regime in Beijing.

Although Beijing and the Vatican have improved relations in recent years as China's Catholic population has grown, they remain at odds over which side has the authority to ordain priests. About 5.7 million Chinese belong to the state-run Catholic church, according to official figures. Independent estimates say 12 million Chinese Catholics worship in unauthorised churches and are loyal to the pope.

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