Vatican positive about new Beijing bishop

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VATICAN CITY, Sep 18 (Reuters) The Vatican is positive about the new state-backed bishop of Beijing and hopes his appointment will help improve often strained relations with China's communist government, an official said today.

''This should be a favourable step forward, a good occasion to build on something,'' a senior Vatican official told Reuters.

Father Li Shan will be made bishop of Beijing at a ceremony on Friday approved by the state-backed church. The Vatican has made no statement about whether he had formal papal approval.

Still, the tone of the Vatican official's comments and his choice of words when speaking of the new leader of China's most prominent diocese indicated that there had been some form of at least a tacit understanding.

''There is absolutely no bitterness,'' he said. ''We are tranquil (about the appointment of Li) and we are full of hope.'' That was a contrast to the past, when China's appointment of bishops without at least a tacit Vatican green light prompted bitter exchanges.

In 2006, after China consecrated three bishops apparently without consulting the Vatican, the Holy See denounced it as subversive and the Beijing government accused the Vatican of interference in its internal affairs.

China's 8 to 12 million Catholics are divided between a Church approved by the ruling Communist Party and an ''underground'' church wary of government ties.

Members of the state-approved Church also honour the Pope, but the government restricts formal contacts with Rome, which has not had diplomatic ties with Beijing since 1951.

Asked what impact the Vatican's positive view of Li's appointment could have on future ties, the official said: ''This is not a turning point but it will not be a cause for any more conflict''.

Beijing wants the Vatican to sever its ties with its diplomatic rival Taiwan, which split from China in 1949 after the civil war and which Beijing sees as a renegade province.

The Vatican, one of Taiwan's fewer than 25 remaining diplomatic allies, has said it wants to keep some of kind of relations with Taipei even if it reopens its embassy in Beijing. China has rejected this.

Li, who uses the Christian name Joseph, has refused to say anything except that he was on a spiritual retreat when contacted by phone about whether he had Vatican approval.

Pope Benedict has urged new Chinese bishops to publicly profess their bond to Rome.

Reuters ARB GC1720

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