May 13, 2006

China backs bishop but locals dissent

By Chris Buckley

NINGDE, China (Reuters) - China installed a controversial
new Catholic bishop on Sunday 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

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

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 representatives 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


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 on Sunday, he

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."