May 4, 2006

Pope condemns China over bishop appointments

By Silvia Aloisi

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict said on Thursday
China's appointment of two Catholic bishops without his
blessing was a "grave violation of religious freedom,"
heightening tensions between the Vatican and Beijing.

The ordinations were a major setback for relations between
the Holy See and China, which had appeared to be improving in
recent years, raising expectations that full diplomatic ties
cut in 1951 could eventually be restored.

"The Holy Father learned the news with deep displeasure,"
the Vatican said in an unusually strongly worded statement.

It said it had received information that bishops and
priests in China had come under "strong pressure and threats"
to take part in the ordinations, which it branded

"The Holy See reiterates the need to respect the freedom of
the Church and the autonomy of its institutions from any
external interference," the Vatican said, adding that "such
unacceptable acts of violent and intolerable constraint" should
not be repeated.

China defended the appointments by its state-run Catholic
Church, saying they strictly followed democratic processes and
fully respected the wishes of a majority of worshippers.

"So the Vatican's condemnation makes no sense," China's
Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"We hold a sincere attitude toward improving Sino-Vatican
relations and have made active efforts. We hope the Vatican
side can support a good environment for improvement of the
relationship," it said.


China and the Vatican severed ties after the 1949 Communist
takeover and subsequent crackdown on religion. The Vatican
switched official recognition to Taiwan -- the self-ruled
island China says is a breakaway province.

Beijing has traditionally refused to allow the Vatican to
appoint bishops and allow Catholics to recognize the authority
of the Pope, saying this would be interference in its internal

However, in recent years Beijing and the Holy See -- warily
exploring 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-sponsored church.

China's 10 million Catholics are divided between an
"underground" church loyal to the Holy See and a state-approved
church that respects the Pope as a spiritual figurehead but
rejects effective papal control.

Yet experts of Chinese Catholicism say even in the
state-backed church, many priests and parishioners now expect
their bishops to gain Vatican approval.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of the Rome-based
AsiaNews service that reports on Chinese Catholicism, said the
two appointed bishops were considered "too weak" to resist
government pressure.

"They were forced to take this step through very strong
pressures," he said, adding China had much to lose from bad
relations with the Vatican.

"China has the greatest interest in improving ties with the
Holy See that would help promote its image as a modern state,"
he said.