VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Dialogue between China and the Vatican remains difficult but progress can be expected over time, Cardinal Tarcision Bertone, the Vatican number two, told La Stampa newspaper on Thursday.

The Vatican has had no formal diplomatic ties with the Communist regime in Beijing since 1951, but relations improved slightly after Benedict XVI became pope in 2005.

Last year, however, the pope accused Beijing of pressuring Chinese bishops into separating from the Holy See.

"Dialogue isn't broken off, but it is sometimes difficult and switches on and off," Bertone said.

But "if one looks at the positive steps achieved, one cannot rule out, and one can even expect and encourage a positive meeting between the Catholic Church ... and the great Chinese people," he added.

The Vatican last year was angered by several ordinations carried out by the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), the official church, without papal approval.

China's Catholics are increasingly caught between showing allegiance to the CPCA or to the pope as part of an "underground" Church considered illegal by Beijing.
While official statistics put the number of Catholics in China at 5.7 million, independent sources say it is closer to 12 million.