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Updated: December 24, 2010 15:04 IST

China says Vatican must repair rift over bishops

AP
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The Hong Kong-born priest, Salesian Father Savio Hon Tai-fai, 60, speaks to the media at the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong on Friday. Pope Benedict XVI has appointed the Chinese priest Father Savio Hon Tai-fai as secretary of Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican department responsible for missionary work which has jurisdiction over the Church in China. Photo: AP.
The Hong Kong-born priest, Salesian Father Savio Hon Tai-fai, 60, speaks to the media at the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong on Friday. Pope Benedict XVI has appointed the Chinese priest Father Savio Hon Tai-fai as secretary of Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican department responsible for missionary work which has jurisdiction over the Church in China. Photo: AP.

The Vatican bears responsibility for restoring dialogue with China’s government-backed church after its criticism of leadership changes here frayed ties, a Chinese church official said on Friday.

China’s official Catholic church named new leaders at a conference not recognized by the Vatican, which last week condemned the election as a violation of religious freedom and human rights.

China on Wednesday called those comments harmful to the Catholic church’s development in China. The exchange left Vatican-China relations at their lowest point in years.

Liu Bainian, the outgoing head of Beijing’s powerful church oversight body, said the Holy See had never before objected to the twice-a-decade conference and its comments this time warranted a strong response.

“We can’t just not hold the meeting because the Vatican opposes. People wouldn’t accept it and it would be akin to turning China into a colony,” Mr. Liu said at his office on Christmas Eve. His new role will be as honorary chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association that oversees the church in China.

Repairing ties that had been gradually improving in recent years was now the responsibility of officials in Rome, he said.

“It’s not the Chinese government or the Chinese church that is affecting China-Vatican relations,” Mr. Liu said. “I urge the Vatican to be proactive because it’s they who created the problem.”

China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 shortly after the communist seizure of power. Dialogue has been used to ease tensions, but a main sticking point has been the Chinese church’s insistence that it, not Rome, has the right to appoint bishops.

The sides had come to a fragile accommodation in recent years whereby Rome tacitly approved the bishops nominated by Beijing. That appeared to break down last month when the Chinese church ordained a bishop who did not have the pope’s approval, a move it said it was forced to take because of a lack of response from the Vatican.

The frictions worsened after this month’s meeting of about 300 bishops, priests and laymen in Beijing, at which Bishop Ma Yinglin, who is not recognized by the Holy See, was chosen as head of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church of China. Mr. Liu said the bishop’s conference is purely an administrative organ and that no theological conflicts exist with the Holy See.

“The bishops are all clear. On matters of faith, God gives the right to the Pope. On matters of politics, God gives the right to each country’s government,” said Mr. Liu.

Despite China’s lack of diplomatic ties with the Vatican, the Catholic church has thrived in China over recent decades alongside Protestant sects that are also closely regulated by the government.

Although only state-backed Catholic churches are recognized, millions of other Chinese belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.

Officially, China has more than six-million Catholics, up from just over two-million before the 1949 revolution. About 100,000 join the church every year, Mr. Liu said, with Christmas being a particularly productive period for attracting converts.

“In the past, only Catholics and Protestants celebrated Christmas. Now many university students, young people and intellectuals have become interested and Christmas services are packed so tightly some churches have to issue tickets to attend,” Mr. Liu said.

“So for China it is the best time to spread the good news.”

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