China, Vatican in friendly exchange, but formal ties elusive amid continuing disagreements

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A greeting from Pope Francis to Chinese President Xi Jinping is being seen as a rare cordial exchange between the sides that have no diplomatic relations and are embroiled in a sometimes bitter contest for authority.

Francis extended greetings and prayers to Xi as he flew over Chinese air space on his way to South Korea early Thursday. While it's customary for the pope to send telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace, Thursday's telegram was unique because the last time a pope wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused.

Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong that closely monitors the church in mainland China called Thursday's developments "friendly gestures," but said he didn't expect any diplomatic breakthroughs.