Government-backed bishops have spoken out publicly in support of the Vatican-China deal in a Chinese media interview at the Chinese Communist Party’s annual meetings this week.

Bishop Peter Fang Jianping of Tangshan is a member of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese government’s legislative body which voted to eliminate presidential term limits March 11.

Bishop Fang said Catholics should support President Xi Jinping “because we, as citizens of the country, should first be a citizen and then have religion and beliefs," in a Chinese media interview at the congressional meeting.

Fang, who was ordained a bishop in Beijing in 2000 without Vatican approval and then legitimized by the Holy See two years later, is also reported to have expressed confidence that the Vatican and the Chinese government could reach an agreement on the appointment of bishops to promote the development of the Church in China, according to the The Union of Catholic Asian News.

Two currently excommunicated bishops also spoke favorably of a deal between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops to the Chinese press.

Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin of Leshan, who was excommunicated by the Holy See due to his unapproved episcopal appointment, spoke to the press as an official delegate at the government’s Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference saying that diplomatic ties between China and the Vatican would have a good impact on China's international influence and and would allow the Church to conduct its work more normally on the mainland, reported UCA News.

"There are no obstacles [to a China-Vatican deal] if everyone just thinks of the benefit of the church for the sake of peace," said Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu of Mindong, another excommunicated bishop, in an interview with China’s Sing Tao Daily on March 10.

It would be rare for anyone giving a press interview at the Chinese government’s annual two weeks of meetings to say anything critical of the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Out of the 2,964 delegates in the National People’s Congress, only two people voted against giving Xi lifelong rule.

The vote confirming Xi’s consolidation of power has been highlighly censored across China. After the removal of term limits was proposed, the words “I disagree,” “emperor,” and even “Winnie the Pooh” were censored on China’s social media networks. (A meme comparing Xi to a drawing of Winnie the Pooh dressed as a king had gained popularity online in China.)

Beijing broke off diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951 and later established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in 1957 to  regulate Catholics living in China.

It is estimated that there are about 12 million Catholics currently living in China, half within official state churches in the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the rest in the “underground Church.” Tensions between these two groups controversial episcopal appointments as the Chinese government appointed bishops without approval from the Holy See and vice versa.

“There are many communities here, in face, that don’t distinguish between above or under the ground with regard to where you most often associate yourself,” a source working with Catholics in China told CNA.

“Persecution can hit regardless of what side you belong to and all are united in the same general desire to draw closer to God … This was evident when the entire church came together a couple years ago in and around the Wenzhou region when crosses were being torn down, statues bricked up and churches bulldozed,” continued the source who expressed that there is a growing sense of unity between the two groups of Catholics in China on the ground due to persecution.

Since Xi took power in 2013, crosses have been removed from an estimated 1,500 churches, both Catholic and Protestant, as a part of an effort to “Sinicize” Christianity. New restrictions were put in place by the Chinese government Feb. 1 making it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to enter a church building.

A potential deal between the Vatican and Xi’s regime might result in Pope Francis recognizing seven bishops in China currently ordained without Holy See approval, while providing the Holy Father with a means to provide input on future appointments.

Last month, the New York Times reported that Vatican-appointed Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin of Mindong was asked by the Vatican delegation negotiating with China to step down so that Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, quoted earlier in this article, could take his place. Guo, who has been previously detained by Chinese authorities, said that he would be loyal to Rome’s final decision.