The Vatican and China on Saturday signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops in the country, reported the Vatican News. The pact was signed in Beijing by Antoine Camilleri, undersecretary for the Holy See’s Relations with states, and China’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Wang Chao.

So far, China has appointed its own officials to a Catholic church recognised by the government, reported AFP.

China cut off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951. The country is home to an estimated 12 million Catholics divided between a state-run church and an unofficial church loyal to the Vatican.

“The objective of the accord is not political but pastoral, allowing the faithful to have bishops who are in communion with Rome but at the same time recognised by Chinese authorities,” Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke said in a statement.

The preliminary agreement “has been agreed following a long process of careful negotiation and foresees the possibility of periodic reviews of its application”, said the Vatican.

China said the two sides “will continue to maintain communication and push forward the improvement of bilateral relations.”

In a statement, Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the accord would mark a new chapter, especially for the life of the church in China and the dialogue between the Vatican and Chinese authorities.

While the Vatican is one of only 17 countries that recognises Taiwan, Pope Francis has sought to improve relations with China since taking over in 2013. Beijing wants the Vatican to stop recognising Taiwan and to not interfere in China’s religious matters.

The Taiwanese foreign ministry said it hoped the Vatican would ensure that Catholics on the mainland “receive due protection and not be subject to repression”.

The agreement was announced at a time Pope Francis is visiting Lithuania at the start of a four-day trip to the Baltic countries.