China defies Vatican on bishop conclave

Members of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese protest at the Chinese government liaison office in Hong Kong to demand a halt to the forced attendance of bishops at a meeting of the government-backed church.
Members of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese protest at the Chinese government liaison office in Hong Kong to demand a halt to the forced attendance of bishops at a meeting of the government-backed church. (Kin Cheung)
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

BEIJING - China's government-backed "patriotic" Catholic church began a three-day meeting Tuesday to choose new leaders, defying objections from the Vatican that the conclave has no formal standing with the true Catholic Church and further straining the Chinese government's fraught relationship with the Holy See.

Pope Benedict XVI told Catholic bishops not to attend the gathering, called the Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, being held in Beijing.

"This kind of organization completely contradicts the church's hierarchy," said Anthony Lam, researcher with the Holy Spirit Study Unit, which is part of the Diocese of Hong Kong. "The Holy See has already informed all individual bishops not to attend this kind of meeting."

There were reports, however, that Chinese police had been dispatched to parishes to search for bishops and force them to attend. The Web site of the government's religious affairs office said late Tuesday that the conference was attended by 341 representatives, including 64 bishops, 162 priests, 24 nuns and 91 other church members.

A friar at the Jing county cathedral, in Hebei province, described one dramatic scene Monday night when scores of Chinese police officers dragged away Bishop Feng Xinmao after a six-hour standoff as more than 30 priests encircled a police car with the bishop inside.

"Bishop Feng was kidnapped and forced to attend that meeting," said the friar, who was interviewed by telephone and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. After the bishop was allowed to attend the funeral of a priest who had died, the friar said, police tried to take the bishop away but met a strong but peaceful protest from his congregation.

"There were so many priests, friars, nuns and church members," the friar said. "The officials called for more cars and for more police backup. Some of the nuns and church members cried because they didn't want the bishop to be taken away. In the end, the bishop had to go with them.

"The Communist Party planned this whole meeting, and they want all the bishops to attend so, in the end, they can take photos and use them in their propaganda to say we have religious freedom," the friar said. "But most of the bishops didn't want to go because the Vatican doesn't approve."

There were news agency reports of other bishops who were brought against their will to Beijing or who were trying to hide.

The gathering of the progovernment group comes a little more than two weeks after China ordained a bishop in Hebei province without the Vatican's approval - and forced Vatican-backed prelates to attend the ceremony. That Nov. 20 ordination of the Rev. Joseph Guo Jincai as bishop of Chengde was sharply denounced in an official Vatican statement, which said the pope considered it "a painful wound."

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, called the ordination "illicit and damaging to the constructive relations that have been developing in recent times between the People's Republic of China and the Holy See," according to the Vatican Information Service.

A Vatican statement said Guo now faced "severe sanctions" - meaning automatic excommunication. And the Vatican said forcing at least eight of Benedict's bishops to attend the "illicit" ordination constituted a "grave violation of freedom of religion and conscience."

China's Communist leaders and the Holy See also were at odds last month over the appointment of a government official as the vice rector of the Catholic seminary in Shijiazhuang, also in Hebei province.

The Vatican has not had normal relations with China since 1951, when the country's new Communist rulers forced its Roman Catholics to sever ties with the Holy See. China's Communists established their own officially sanctioned Catholic church under the control of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which oversees appointments of top clergy. But millions of Chinese Catholics still worship at "underground" churches loyal to the pope.

Relations were particularly strained during the papacy of John Paul II, who was viewed warily by Beijing's leaders as an anti-Communist crusader who was responsible for the downfall of communism in his native Poland and across Eastern Europe.

When Pope Benedict ascended to St. Peter's throne in 2005, there were hopes for a rapprochement, and the pontiff made establishing diplomatic relations with China a top priority.

For nearly five years, China did not ordain bishops without the pope's tacit approval. So the ordination of Guo in Hebei seemed oddly timed, leading to speculation that some elements in China may have been trying to sabotage the move to better ties.

Staff researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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