Focus on Sino-Vatican ties as Pope approves bishop

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HONG KONG, Sep 12 (Reuters) A bishop has been ordained in China's state-controlled Catholic church with the Pope's blessing in a sign of a thaw in Sino-Vatican relations -- but the death in detention of an ''underground'' bishop loyal to Rome shows a divide remains between the two sides.

Paolo Xiao Zejiang, 40, was ordained as bishop of Guiyang in the southwestern province of Guizhou over the weekend with the Pope's approval, reported Asianews, a news agency affiliated to the Vatican.

China's Catholics are split between an official church sanctioned by the state and an underground church that rejects government ties and answers only to Rome.

Asianews said the ordination was attended by bishops and priests from both the underground and official church in a sign of the Vatican's desire to normalise ties with Beijing.

China's unilateral ordinations of three bishops without papal approval last year severely strained ties, but the Vatican has since shown a willingness for rapprochement with China, where it estimates 8 million Catholics worship in underground churches.

John Han Dingxiang, 71, the underground bishop of Yongnian in the northern province of Hebei, died from a ''grave illness'' on September 9, the US-based Cardinal Kung Foundation said in a press release.

Asianews reported that Han had been kept in solitary confinement for two years and had suffered from lung cancer.

Han had first been arrested in 1960 for ''counter-revolutionary activities'' and had spent a total of 35 years of his life either in labour camp, prison or under house arrest.

Pope Benedict said in an open letter to China's Catholics in June that ''grave limitations'' on religious freedom remain in China that were continuing to ''suffocate'' the church.

There are periodic arrests of underground bishops by Chinese authorities, including another Hebei bishop in August. China has had no diplomatic relations with the Vatican since 1951, two years after the atheist Communist Party swept to power.

Reuters SG GC1550

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