China’s government-backed Catholic church on Thursday elected new leaders, including a prelate unrecognized by the Vatican to head its bishops’ council, in a move likely to worsen often uneasy relations with the Holy See.

Ties between China and the Vatican already were strained because of a dispute over the November 20 ordination of Rev. Joseph Guo Jincai as bishop without papal approval. The Vatican says only it has the right to name bishops, and the question of their appointment has been the main stumbling block in resuming relations with the government in Beijing.

Now the state-backed church has picked two other bishops to lead the two main organizations supervising Catholic church policy in China, groups the Vatican disapproves of because they run counter to Catholic doctrine. One of the bishops is unrecognized by the Holy See, which could be an obstacle for the country’s prelates to gain acceptance by Rome.

Bishop Ma Yinglin was chosen as head of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church of China during a meeting of about 300 bishops, priests and laymen in Beijing, said Liu Bainian, vice-chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Bishop Ma’s ordination in 2006 in the southwestern city of Kunming was not recognized by the Vatican, which according to reports at the time was opposed to him because he was too close to the official Chinese church’s leaders and had inadequate pastoral experience.

“His legal status is still in question. So his election made some people a little bit surprised,” said Anthony Lam, a researcher at the church-affiliated Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong. ”

The association’s new chairman, meanwhile, was to be Bishop Fang Xingyao of Linyi city in northern Shandong province, Mr. Liu said.

Fang is a Vatican-approved bishop, Lam said, but is seen as somewhat weak in the face of government pressure because he has presided over ordinations of prelates who have not gained the pope’s approval.

The appointments were ultimately of little significance because Liu, a veteran in the Patriotic Association and a Communist Party loyalist, holds ultimate power over the Catholic church in China, Lam said.

The two organizations’ top positions have been vacant since Bishop Fu Tieshan’s death in 2007. He 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.

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 Chinese government said it hoped the Vatican would help create conditions for the development of ties between the sides.

“We hope the Vatican can face the Chinese policy of religious freedom and the fact that Chinese Catholic church enjoys development,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu at a regular briefing on Thursday, without commenting directly on this week’s meeting.

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