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Vatican to pursue Beijing ties

September 12, 2007

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: September 12 2007
The death in Chinese custody, and hurried secular funeral, of a Roman Catholic bishop who was operating “underground” in the country have cast a shadow over efforts by Pope Benedict XVI to normalise relations between the Vatican and China.

However, observers said that in spite of the crude treatment of Bishop Han Dingxiang at the hands of the Chinese authorities, the trend towards closer ties between the Vatican and China – one of the pope’s diplomatic priorities – appears set to continue.

Bishop Han Dingxiang of Yongnian in Hebei province, who spent a total of 35 years in prison, died on Sunday, aged 71, a Vatican source confirmed. He had been ill with lung cancer and had spent the last eight years in custody.

However, in a further sign of rapprochement between China’s officially recognised Catholic church and the Vatican, a new bishop was ordained on Saturday in Guiyang in southern China by the state organisation with the approval of the Vatican.

AsiaNews, which is affiliated to the Vatican, reported that bishops and priests from the underground church, knowing of the Vatican’s approval, decided to participate with the official church in the ordination of Paolo Xiao Zejiang. This was possibly the first joint celebration and marked an important step in reconciliation as requested by the pope in his landmark letter of June 30 to the Chinese people, AsiaNews said. The letter urged the underground faithful and followers of the state-run church to overcome decades of animosity and distrust.

The Vatican’s insistence on its right to appoint bishops is one of the most significant obstacles preventing restoration of the relations severed by the Chinese Communist party in 1951.

The US-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which has close ties to China’s “underground” Roman Catholic movement, said Chinese authorities hurriedly summoned a few close relatives to Bishop Han’s bedside in the hours before his death.

He was cremated and his ashes buried within six hours of his death in a public cemetery with no priests present. The Foundation says four underground bishops remain in prison.

Liu Bainian, the conservative head of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association which risks losing authority and wealth through reconciliation, last week accused the Vatican of wanting to impose anti-communist bishops. He said China should accelerate the appointment of new bishops to meet a serious shortage in the country.

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