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THE ODDEST COUPLE

After a 66-year estrangement, can China and the Catholic Church kiss and make up?

AS POPE FRANCIS entered Chinese airspace on a light to South Korea in August 2014, he sent a note to Chinese President Xi Jinping: “I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”

With that message, the pope broke 63 years of silence between the Vatican and the Chinese government, dating back to when Mao Zedong’s Communist Party expelled the last Vatican diplomat from Beijing, in 1951. And now, after more than two years of negotiations, China and the Roman Catholic Church are nearing a historic deal to re-establish ties through a unified Catholic Church in China—and possibly even a formal diplomatic relationship.

“I think it can happen anytime soon. It may be in the first half of this year if not before the end of this year,” says Victor Gao, a leading foreign policy analyst in Beijing and a former interpreter for onetime Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. “For the Vatican, it will be a good move, because China already has many Catholics, and the potential for more is huge. For China, it will reinforce a message of tolerance and freedom of religion.”

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