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China backs bishop but locals dissent

Written by: Staff
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NINGDE, China, May 14: China installed a controversial new Catholic bishop today in a ceremony reflecting the split between the Vatican and the Chinese state-run church that divides villagers in this heavily Catholic corner of the country.

Zhan Silu presided over a Mass marking his appointment as bishop of Mindong Diocese in eastern China's Fujian province. The cathedral in the small city of Ningde was crowded to overflowing with a mix of urban residents and farmers in frayed clothes, welcoming his formal elevation after years as second-string to an infirm bishop who died last year.

But like two other Chinese bishops appointed in past weeks, Zhan lacks the blessing of Pope Benedict, who sharply criticised China for the moves.

Priests in both the state-approved church and the ''underground'' church around Ningde told Reuters they were upset by Zhan's elevation, warning it may stoke tensions between Beijing and the Vatican, and between the two sides of China's divided church.

''We've been under heavy pressure to attend,'' said a local priest in the state-recognised church, who nonetheless believed the Vatican should choose bishops. He asked his name not be used.

China has some 10 million Catholics, but they are split between an ''underground'' church loyal to the Holy See alone, and a state-approved church, whose members respect the Pope but lack formal ties to the Vatican.

Zhan told Reuters that the underground church had boycotted the Mass, despite his invitation for respresentatives to attend.

Members of the state-approved church offered mixed views about the dispute between the Vatican and Beijing over who controlled bishops. Some said they did not understand the issue; others said they hoped Zhan would ultimately get papal approval.

In few parts of China is the Catholic underground as hardy and audacious as in the hill country of northeast Fujian, where spires of ''underground'' churches jut from villages surrounded by rice paddies and bamboo groves. Luojiang, a town about 40 km northeast of Ningde, is home to the local underground church's cathedral -- built in 1994 -- with its own bishop, warily tolerated by local officials. Larger than Ningde's official cathedral, it crams in about 2,000 worshippers at Sunday Mass, local residents said.

The underground church has about 60,000 to 70,000 followers and about 46 priests throughout Mindong Diocese, according to priests on both sides. The state-approved church has 6,000 followers and six or so priests.

''The church here is in the control of the underground, and the public security authorities tacitly accept that,'' said the priest in the state-approved church.

''Zhan's promotion isn't going to help in making them accept the above-ground church,'' he said of underground Catholics.

Zhan, 45, was appointed a bishop in 2000, when China appointed five despite Vatican opposition. But he said he had not been formally installed as a head of a diocese or hosted a full Mass as bishop until his ceremonial debut today, he said.

The ruling Communist Party traditionally refused to let the Vatican appoint bishops, which it said would be meddling in China's internal affairs. But in the past five years, Beijing and the Holy See reached an understanding that allowed prospective bishops to seek Vatican approval.

In past weeks, however, China's state church unilaterally consecrated a bishop in Wuhu in the eastern province of Anhui and another in Kunming in southwestern Yunnan, drawing warnings from the Vatican. Last week, an assistant bishop was appointed in the northeastern Shenyang with Vatican approval.

Zhan would have also liked the Vatican's nod, but it never came, he said in an interview.

Parishioner Xu Hancun said: ''We all hope to create an atmosphere that will encourage the Vatican and China to establish relations, but the situation at the moment is complex, especially here in Mongdong.''

REUTERS

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