China suggested Monday that it was open to a visit from the Dalai Lama and to establishing ties with the Vatican.

The Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, announced last month that he hoped to travel to China on a pilgrimage. He said envoys had conveyed his message to officials in Beijing.

He has repeatedly said he wants autonomy, not independence, for his Himalayan homeland. But Beijing has expressed suspicion.

"As long as the Dalai Lama makes clear that he has completely abandoned Tibetan 'independence,' it is not impossible for us to consider his visit," said Ye Xiaowen, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, quoted by the China Daily.

But Ye said the Dalai Lama "has failed to deliver a clear message on his stance."

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, after communist forces occupied the region. He hasn't been back since.

Ye was also quoted by the government newspaper as saying China and the Vatican are in contact about normalizing relations but haven't worked out a timetable.

The Vatican has said it is ready to move its embassy from rival Taiwan — a key sticking point. But the two sides remain divided over China's insistence on appointing its own bishops.

The communist government forced Roman Catholics to cut their ties to Rome in 1951 and allows worship only in churches run by the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

Ye said Beijing has not changed its stance on the issue of bishops, though he said it was open for discussion.

"We have always been appointing and consecrating our own bishops," Ye said. "This is what we must stick to."

Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949. The Vatican is the last European government that has official relations with Taipei.

The newly appointed Roman Catholic cardinal in Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, said last weekend that China's official church has to relinquish some control if Sino-Vatican relations are to be established.

Hong Kong is Chinese territory but its Catholics are allowed direct contact with the Vatican and Zen was appointed by the pope.