TIANSHUI, China — The priest opens a small black bag, carefully removing several sacramental garments, then glances at the 17 faces around the room. The house is several miles from the nearest town, down a long winding dirt road and tucked into a traditional Chinese courtyard.
It's almost midnight on a recent Sunday as a few stragglers emerge from the dark, duck through a curtain made of pieces of old soda cans and enter a family's bedroom, for now a makeshift church.
This secret Roman Catholic service is illegal in a country where the Communist Party demands control of all religious organizations. After the sermon, the priest, who asked not to be identified because of the risk of prosecution, reminds the faithful to be careful: "When you leave, don't say anything to outsiders," he says. "We all came to attend a friend's party. I hope you understand, and save us all from trouble."
He should know. He was imprisoned for two months in the 1990s for practicing his faith and says he was tortured.
Although freedom of religion is enshrined in China's Constitution, in practice, churches are under the watchful eye of a series of official "patriotic" religious organizations that have final authority over the naming of bishops, priests and other leaders. Many who bridle at Beijing's often-clumsy oversight prefer to worship underground despite the risk of arrest.
The so-called patriotic Catholics number 4 million, according to government figures. Underground church members are estimated at two to three times that number.
In recent months, relations between the Vatican and Beijing have thawed, with some seeing the death of Pope John Paul II as a catalyst. Rome, with its worldwide flock of 1 billion, and the Chinese Communist Party, overseeing a nation of 1.3 billion, have been doing an uneasy dance driven by self-interest.
For Beijing, establishing formal ties with the Vatican could help soften its poor reputation on human rights and religious freedom. It would also be a diplomatic coup, since the Vatican would almost certainly have to sever formal ties with the Taiwanese government, Beijing's adversary.
To the Vatican, China represents an extremely attractive frontier, where one-fifth of the world's people live in a society increasingly hungry for spirituality. Catholics in China have endured great hardship in the service of their faith for decades, including the imprisonment of many priests.
In talks in Rome and Beijing, the two sides have outlined a range of possible compromises to normalize relations that seem to overcome the main sticking points, said Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Rome-based humanitarian group Community of St. Egidio.
The talks suffered a setback when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian attended John Paul's funeral, but Marazziti said he believed it was only temporary.
The main elements of a compromise are now in focus, religious leaders and analysts say. The Vatican would probably end its official recognition of Taiwan and Beijing would allow Rome greater say in church affairs.
Cuba and Vietnam, also ruled by communist governments, may provide a model, experts say. For instance, instead of naming a bishop, Rome could offer three candidates, letting Beijing choose.
Church officials said many of Taiwan's 300,000 Catholics might feel betrayed by any downgrading of relations between Taipei and Rome. But Msgr. Ambrose Madtha, the Vatican's charge d'affaires in Taiwan, said the possibility had been floating for years, and many are used to the idea.
The outspoken bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, said Rome wants better relations more than Beijing, which has rebuffed Vatican overtures in recent years. Rome even dispatched archbishops to North Korea on humanitarian missions, another country with which it has no official ties, in part because the priests would transit through Beijing.
Once in China's capital, Zen said, the Catholic envoys called religious affairs officials, who sometimes agreed to meet them. "But if they said yes, they would just drink tea and repeat the same things, because the order is from the top," he said.
China would need to change its overall approach for a deal to be struck, Zen said. Beijing recognizes Rome's spiritual authority but not its political authority. The patriotic associations, for example, exert overt control over the Catholic Church in some places, requiring that a Communist Party official attend every major organizational meeting.
A rapprochement flies in the face of Beijing's general tightening of control over the media, religious groups, Internet writers, students and other potential critics since President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came to power in 2002-03.
Skeptics point out that Beijing will probably face calls from other religions to match concessions to Catholics. And even Zen admits that the giant bureaucracy charged with controlling religion would fight any change that might jeopardize its job.