Beijing (AFP) - A Vatican official visiting Beijing says the pontiff "loves China" -- a communist country which has yet to establish official diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
"Pope Francis loves China and loves the people of China, its history and population," Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, a chancellor of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said Thursday, according to the state-run Global Times.
Sorondo, who is considered a close friend of Francis, confirmed to AFP Friday that he made these remarks.
The Vatican and China do not maintain diplomatic relations, but since becoming head of the Holy See in 2013 Pope Francis has tried to mend ties with Beijing in the hope of reconnecting with Catholics in China.
Negotiations between the two sides have been stymied by the issue of appointing bishops.
The country's roughly 12 million believers are divided between those loyal to Beijing, whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and members of a so-called "underground" church which swears allegiance to the Vatican.
This June, Rome expressed "grave concerns" over the fate of a clandestine or underground church bishop who was detained mid-May.
Sorondo is in Beijing for an organ transplant conference, a topic the Vatican has previously engaged Chinese officials on despite criticism from ethics experts and human rights lawyers, who say the Asian giant still uses tissue from executed prisoners.
Beijing issued its first regulation banning the trade of organs in 2007, but trafficking remains common as the country suffers a drastic shortage of donated body parts.
The practice of using executed prisoners' organs for transplants was also banned in 2015, but there are fears prisoners may be being reclassified as voluntary donors to get around the rules.
"China is making efforts on the issue of organ trafficking," the bishop told AFP.