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China to choose Catholic heads; Vatican ties tense

China's bishops opened a meeting on Tuesday to choose leaders of the government-backed Catholic church amid tensions with the Vatican after it denounced the recent ordination of a bishop who did not have the pope's approval.

world Updated: Dec 07, 2010 12:06 IST

China's bishops opened a meeting on Tuesday to choose leaders of the government-backed Catholic church amid tensions with the Vatican after it denounced the recent ordination of a bishop who did not have the pope's approval.

Chinese authorities are pressuring some bishops to attend the Beijing meeting, a religious news agency said.

The meeting to elect new heads of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Council of Chinese Bishops will be another source of friction because the Vatican disapproves of such assemblies, saying both organizations run counter to Catholic doctrine.

Ties between China and the Vatican already were strained because of a dispute over the Nov. 20 ordination of Rev. Joseph Guo Jincai as bishop. The Vatican also slammed Chinese authorities for forcing Vatican-approved bishops to attend the ordination ceremony. Communist China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, and worship is allowed only in state-backed churches, although millions of Chinese belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.

The National Congress of Chinese Catholic Representatives runs until Thursday and will be attended by bishops, priests and believers, said Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Patriotic Association, which supervises the Catholic church, including overseeing the appointment of all of China's bishops. "It's just an election of a new round of leadership, like the election of the leadership of the National People's Congress," Liu said, referring to the country's rubberstamp legislature. He declined further comment.

Ahead of the conclave, Chinese police sought out at least two bishops in an effort to ensure their attendance, according to AsiaNews, a Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency that closely covers the church in China.

Monsignor Feng Xinmao, bishop of Hengshui, a city in Hebei, was removed from his official residence despite efforts by parishioners and priests to hold back officers, AsiaNews said. He was then taken to an isolated location outside the city southwest of Beijing, it said.

Separately, the bishop of Hebei's Cangzhou city, Monsignor Li Lianggui, had gone into hiding, leading police to say they may issue a nationwide arrest warrant, AsiaNews said.

The meeting has been put off a few times in recent years, perhaps due to the Vatican's objections, said Anthony Lam, a researcher at the church-affiliated Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong. "They know they cannot postpone it forever, so they are trying to do it now as a low-key event," he said.

The two organizations' top positions have been vacant since the death in 2007 of Beijing Bishop Fu Tieshan, a hard-liner who was head of the Patriotic Association from 1998 and served as acting head of the Bishops' Conference for about two years. Fu's simultaneous control of both bodies underscored the government's tight grip on the official church.

Lam said that despite the recent setback, Beijing still wants to normalize ties with the Vatican.

"For them, a harmonious situation is one of the most important things now in China and so if they can give certain degree of freedom to the church people in return for their loyalty, they would like to do that," Lam said.

Calls to police, government religious affairs bureaus, and Catholic churches in Hengshui and Cangzhou either rang unanswered or were answered by people who said they either had no information or were not authorized to comment. Staff at the Patriotic Association in Beijing said they could not receive telephoned inquiries and Vice Chairman Liu's mobile phone was shut off.

The meeting also comes as about 100 Catholic students at a seminary in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, ended a two-week strike over the appointment of a government official as vice rector of the school, the Bangkok-based Union of Catholic Asian News said. Provincial authorities withdrew the appointment, prompting students to return to classes.

In recent years under Pope Benedict XVI, China-Vatican relations have improved and Benedict has said that restoring diplomatic relations with Beijing is a priority. Disputes over appointments in China's official church have been avoided by quietly conferring on candidates, leading to several ordinations of bishops with the Holy See's blessing.

The ordination of Rev. Guo was the first without papal approval in almost five years, and the Holy See had warned reconciliation efforts would be set back if bishops were forced to attend. The Vatican blasted the government for allowing the Patriotic Association, and in particular vice chairman Liu, "to adopt attitudes that gravely damage the Catholic Church."