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China-Vatican ties tested by second bishop

By Staff
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Beijing, May 3: A battle between Beijing and the Vatican over control of church posts flared today as China's state-backed Catholic church installed another bishop without papal blessing.

Liu Xinhong was consecrated bishop of Wuhu in the eastern province of Anhui at the city's Saint Joseph's Cathedral. But like the priest who became bishop of Kunming in southwestern China on Sunday, Liu had failed to win the Vatican's mandate.

''The Vatican is very sorry and displeased,'' Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of the Rome-based AsiaNews service that reports on Chinese Catholicism, told Reuters.

''This threatens to destroy the dialogue between China and the Vatican,'' he said of the latest appointments.

In recent years, Beijing and the Holy See -- warily mulling restoration of formal ties -- came to an understanding that usually allowed prospective priests and bishops to seek Vatican approval before taking up posts in the state-controlled church.

Now that arrangement appears to be breaking down, as the state church administration pushes through its own choices.

A third or more of China's 12 million or so Catholics belong to an ''underground'' church that stayed loyal to the Vatican throughout decades of harsh repression under China's Communist Party after it won power in 1949.

With easing of restrictions on religion since the 1980s, growing numbers of clergy in the state-controlled church have also sought Rome's blessing, and it was usually given.

Cervellera estimated that about 85 percent of China's bishops had papal approval.

In 2004, China had 120 bishops, 74 in the state-backed church, according to the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, which monitors the Chinese church.

But Liu Xinhong, a priest from Anhui, was not under consideration by Rome and was considered by local Catholics to be ''too close to the government'', said Cervellera.

Liu Bainian, a vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association who often speaks for the state church, rejected claims that the recent appointments threatened ties with the Vatican. He suggested that his critics, who include Hong Kong's Cardinal Joseph Zen, were politically motivated.

''I'm afraid that some people in the Church are not acting in the Church's interests, but saying things for their own interest, status and political ideology,'' he told Reuters.

Many Chinese Catholics loyal to Rome would be disturbed that bishops who themselves carry Rome's mandate had attended installation ceremonies frowned on by the Holy See, said Joseph Kung, whose Cardinal Kung Foundation publicises restrictions on China's underground church.This suggested that Beijing, not the Vatican, holds sway over them, he added.

Bishops had been under ''intense pressure'' to attend the ceremonies, although many had still stayed away, and the installations had become divisive tests of loyalties, said a Chinese priest who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bishop Wu Shizhen of Nanchang in southern China, who is recognised by the Vatican, was due to officiate at the Wuhu consecration mass, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday. A church official in Wuhu declined to comment, saying only that a total of five bishops had attended.

At last two bishops who attended the Yunnan installation were also accepted by Rome, said the Chinese priest.

''This should serve as a wake-up call to the Vatican about how insincere China has been,'' Kung said. ''Obedience to the Pope is core to Catholic dogma, but this runs entirely against that".

Reuters

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