In a fresh blow to Beijing's relations with the Vatican, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has stripped a Shanghai bishop of his title after he outraged officials by resigning from the state-approved body that oversees Chinese Catholics, reports said.
According to the Vatican-backed AsiaNews service, the website of the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association reported that Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin has now been stripped of his title as bishop for "serious violations of the association's regulations."
Ma has reportedly been held in a seminary since he resigned from the association on July 7 in front of a packed church in Shanghai during what was supposed to be his consecration as an auxiliary bishop, a position he had been named to in a rare consensus between Beijing and the Vatican.
His move was widely understood as a protest against the Party's political control over Catholics in China.
The Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, of Belgium's Catholic University of Leuven, and the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, editor-in-chief of AsiaNews, said Chinese colleagues had informed them earlier this week that Ma was being stripped of his title by the Catholic Patriotic Association.
An employee who answered the phone at the Shanghai Catholic diocese office declined to comment on the reports, however.
"He is part of our diocese," the employee said. "But I don't know about this."
Repeated calls to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Relations between Beijing and the Vatican have come under repeated strain as China moves to ordain more and more of its own bishops without Vatican approval to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population.
The Vatican typically responds by excommunicating bishops who accept Beijing's consecration ceremonies, saying that only the Pope can appoint bishops.
Joseph Kung, spokesman for the U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, said that the Chinese government has no power to appoint bishops in the first place.
"How can the Chinese government revoke a bishop's title?" Kung said."This is none of their business; it's the business of the Pope."
"The Chinese government has no power in this matter; anything involving Catholics is a matter for the Pope."
Kung said Ma's appointment as bishop had been made by the Pope in July, and, from the Vatican's point of view, was still valid.
'No power to revoke'
Hong Kong-based religious scholar Anthony Lam, from the territory's Holy Spirit Study Center, said that by revoking Ma's title, the Catholic Patriotic Association was acting beyond its powers.
"The Association has no legally binding powers; it is just a religious body," Lam said. "It has no power to revoke a bishop's title."
He said Ma was probably the target of religious persecution.
"As a bishop appointed by the Pope, he should be given the freedom to carry out his ministerial duties," Lam said. "No one else has the right to interfere with that."
"If the government is getting in the way of Ma Daqin carrying out his work, then I think that is a form of religious oppression."
Ma, 44, had been widely regarded as the likely successor to Shanghai Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, 95, who serves with the approval of both the Vatican and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
The state church has ordained more than 190 bishops, according to official figures, although Catholic officials said recently that more than 40 of the country's 97 dioceses are without a bishop.
China's officially sanctioned Catholic Church has between five and six million members, while an underground church loyal to Rome has an estimated 10 million followers.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.