Hong Kong (AsiaNews/SCMP) - A new opportunity to thaw frosty Sino-Vatican relations is emerging, as the Hong Kong government and the Holy See discuss an unprecedented exhibition of Vatican artefacts in the city.
Beijing is understood to regard the plan as a cultural exchange. But analysts and church insiders believe diplomatic benefits - namely, closer bilateral ties - could also flow from the negotiations and exhibition.
While not yet approved, the exhibition seemed highly likely to occur, sources said. A spokesman for Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping said negotiations had reached the stage of "technical discussions" between curators from both sides.
Dr Ho initiated meetings with officials overseeing the Vatican Museums during a business trip to Rome last September, and discussed the proposal.
"The secretary is very interested in the matter, as he finds the collection of art objects in the Vatican Museums captivating," he said.
A source close to the Vatican said the proposed exhibition would be significant, as it would be the first time Vatican artefacts were shown on Chinese soil. Further, "any such occasions could provide an opportunity [for diplomacy and improved relations], be they soccer or ping-pong and in this case, high art", the source said.
Under the preliminary plan, priceless art objects from the world-renowned Vatican Museums would be sent to Hong Kong for an exhibition as early as 2006.
At present, as a special administrative region, Hong Kong can maintain links with the Vatican in cultural and other non-political matters, while officially China has no diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Hopes for the renewal of ties have remained unpromising in recent years due to Beijing's insistence in having a say in appointing bishops and running churches in Catholic dioceses across the mainland - a condition unacceptable to the Vatican, which maintains diplomatic links with Taipei.
International relations expert James Tang Tuck-hong, dean of the social sciences faculty at the University of Hong Kong, said: "Under the concept of 'one country, two systems', Hong Kong can freely get in touch with the Vatican, unlike the mainland government."
Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a religious affairs analyst with the Holy Spirit Study Centre, said the Vatican's willingness to exhibit its most valuable treasures in Hong Kong reflected the Holy See's goodwill towards Beijing.
But he said the implications for Sino-Vatican relations would depend on the political environment. "It looks more likely at this stage that the mainland sees it as a cultural exchange rather than diplomacy. Rebuilding diplomatic relations will need input from a much higher level [in Beijing]," he said.