Beijing, March 14 - China on Thursday congratulated new Pope Francis on his election and asked that the new leader of the Catholic church take a "flexible and pragmatic" approach in his relations with Beijing. "We congratulate cardinal Bergoglio for his election," Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, said Thursday, adding that the Chinese government "hopes (Pope Francis) will assume a flexible and pragmatic approach to improve relations between China and the Vatican." China, which has some six million Catholics, has a testy relationship with the Vatican and tries to regulate the church's activities in the country through two official bodies, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops Conference. Millions are believed to worship outside these two official bodies. The two states have no diplomatic ties and the Chinese Communist Party forced Chinese Catholics to sever ties to the Vatican in the 1950s. Relations between China and the Vatican took a turn for the worse in 2006, when the Chinese government began unilaterally appointing accommodating bishops without consulting the Vatican, as it had done previously. On Thursday, the foreign ministry spokeswoman added that the Chinese government is "sincere" in its desire to have good relations with the Holy See, but that it must not "interfere in the internal affairs of China on the pretext of religion." News of the pope's election in China, which took place deep in the night in the country, was first announced by the official news agency Xinhua.