Pope Benedict XVI made a rare exception to his annual vacation and received the prime minister of Malaysia July 18. The meeting is reported to be part of efforts to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

It’s just the latest in a spate of welcome developments relating to Holy See diplomacy over the past six months, albeit with a couple of notable exceptions.

Establishing diplomatic links between the two countries was expected to be among the subjects discussed, The Associated Press reported, quoting an unnamed Malaysian government official.

News of the meeting, only the second by a Malaysian prime minister, is said to be “making waves” in the self-declared Islamic state, which has a Catholic population numbering 850,000 — just 3% of the total.

Malaysian Christians have recently seen their freedoms curtailed. Non-Muslims are barred from high political office, and earlier this year efforts were made to place “warning labels” on all Bibles imported into the country, stipulating they should only be read by Christians. Then, in May, a group of Islamic leaders questioned the loyalty of non-Muslims, calling for the rights of the state to be re-evaluated and even a new constitution.

Like China, Afghanistan, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Vietnam, Malaysia currently has no diplomatic relations with the Holy See, although the Vatican has an “apostolic delegate” based in Bangkok who liaises with Kuala Lumpur.

If, as reports suggest, progress can be made on establishing bilateral relations, it will be part of a series of achievements in Vatican diplomacy in recent months.

In June, the Holy See signed a landmark agreement with Montenegro, regulating relations between the Catholic Church and the predominantly Orthodox Balkan state. The accord guarantees the legal status of the Church and institutions and covers the operation of seminaries and spiritual assistance in the armed forces, prisons and hospitals.

The Holy See already has diplomatic relations with a wide range of Orthodox countries, but this was the first such agreement signed by the Vatican and an Orthodox country that regulates Church-state relations.

Soon afterwards, on July 7, the Holy See signed a historic treaty with the central Asian state of Azerbaijan that could be a template for agreements with other Muslim-majority states. The agreement offers a secure legal status to the Catholic Church in Azerbaijan and guarantees religious freedom.

The Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, said the accord was an “indication of how Christians and Muslims can live together and respect one another.”

Meanwhile, relations between the Holy See and Israel appear to be back on track after officials on both sides reported “very significant progress” in June 15 talks about a juridical agreement to establish the legal rights of the Church in the Holy Land.

The accord, which was promised in the “Fundamental Agreement” that established Israeli-Holy See diplomatic relations in 1993, involves the tax liability of churches, the legal standing of missionaries, and the right of access to shrines in Israel.

But Israel repeatedly stonewalled a resolution for nearly two decades, despite pressure from Vatican officials and even the United States government. This is the first time in many years that such a positive statement had been made, and the talks will continue in Jerusalem in December.

Further progress by Holy See diplomats was made in February when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced it was to establish an office to combat “Christianophobia.”

Massimo Introvigne, the OSCE’s representative for combating discrimination and intolerance, said the development “represents an achievement for the diplomacy of the Holy See and those governments which cleverly supported it.”

Exceptions to this run of good news have been Egypt and China. In January, the now-deposed Mubarak government withdrew its ambassador, ostensibly in protest at an address made by Benedict XVI on religious freedom (his words were misinterpreted, and probably on purpose, according to some Egyptian sources). The ambassador, however, has since been reinstated.

The more serious concern involves China. Benedict XVI said July 4 he was “deeply saddened” by the ordination of a bishop in the country without his approval. The Vatican said the ordination of Father Paul Lei Shiyin in the Diocese of Leshan on June 29 was illegitimate, sows divisions and “unfortunately produces rifts and tensions” in the Catholic community. (See related story on page 6.)

Beijing’s communist rulers see the Holy See’s insistence that only the Pope appoint bishops as interference by a foreign entity in Chinese affairs.

Yet, despite this, diplomacy conducted by officials at the Vatican Secretariat of State appears to be running smoothly. Envoys sent to represent their countries at the Holy See have, in recent times, occasionally criticized poor communications from their Vatican counterparts. But these exchanges appear to be improving.

Diplomats were impressed with the organization and communications surrounding Pope Blessed John Paul II’s beatification and Benedict XVI’s timely trip to Croatia. And they understand that the Holy See, with its relatively small number of staff, cannot be as proactive as some diplomats might like.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.