BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it hoped the Vatican could acknowledge the reality of religious freedom in the country, after the pope said Beijing was putting pressure on the faithful who want to remain loyal to the Vatican.

"We hope the Vatican can squarely face the reality of religious freedom in China and the continuous development of Chinese Catholics, and take concrete actions to create conditions for developing Sino-Vatican ties," ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular news briefing.

Pilgrims gather to take part in a beatification mass for the late Pope John Paul II at St. Peter's Square in Vatican May 1, 2011. (REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Pope Benedict called on Wednesday for all Catholics to pray for the faithful in China, who are not allowed to recognise the pope's authority but forced to be members of a state-backed Church.

The pope has previously denounced restrictions on religious freedom in China and encouraged Catholics there to persevere.

China says it protects religious freedom, but does not recognise the authority of the pope and refuses to establish formal relations with the Vatican until the Holy See -- the Church's governing body -- severs ties with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

China's 8 to 12 million Catholics are divided between the state-sanctioned church that names bishops without the Vatican's approval and an underground church wary of government ties.

China forced several bishops and priests loyal to the pope to attend a meeting of the state-backed church last year, rankling the Vatican.

Last November, the Vatican condemned the ordination without papal permission of a Chinese bishop, calling it a "painful wound" hampering dialogue between the Holy See and Beijing.

(Source:, Reporting by Ben Blanchard & Sabrina Mao, editing by Miral Fahmy)