HONG KONG�Chinese authorities have relaxed a ban on travel to mainland China by outspoken Hong Kong Catholic bishop Joseph Zen, who recently made a three-day trip to his hometown of Shanghai, RFA�s Cantonese and Mandarin services report.

The bishop, Joseph Zen, had been barred from visiting the mainland since 1998 after he gave a speech in the Vatican attacking China�s lack of religious freedom.

�I appreciate the sincerity and friendliness mainland authorities have shown and I hope this is the first step toward more communication,�� Zen said. �At least trust still exists between us.��

Zen met with unnamed high-ranking officials and Shanghai�s Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian during a three-day trip that ended Friday. However, he told Hong Kong reporters on his return that the trip was largely private and hadn�t included political discussions. �Of course, I wouldn�t have been able to go if I didn�t get the nod from higher up,� he said.

Zen also visited several religious sites and paid respects at the grave of his late brother-in-law. He said he would continue to speak his mind.

�They said there were no conditions attached to the visit, and I made it clear that I am not going to be silenced and will continue to speak out after I come back,� he said.

Zen has been a stern critic of the government in Beijing and the pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong. He openly attacked Beijing last year over its plan to push through an anti-subversion law in Hong Kong and has irked authorities with repeated calls to his Hong Kong congregations to join anti-government protest marches.

Chinese law promises to protect religious freedom, but the Communist government forbids all worship outside state-backed �patriotic� religious organizations and has conducted periodic crackdowns on Roman Catholics.

In 1949, the Communist Party decreed that all religions in the country must sever ties with outside authority and pledge loyalty to official churches, including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Many Catholics refused Beijing�s demands and continued to worship illegally.

Last week, the top Vatican diplomat in Taiwan repeated demands that Beijing release detained underground Catholic bishops but said their detention wouldn�t affect the Pope�s desire to improve relations with Mainland China.

Msgr. Ambrose Madtha, the Holy See�s charge d�affaires in Taipei, also said the Vatican had no plans to send an ambassador-level official to Taiwan. �The reason is that the Holy See wants to maintain good relations also with the People�s Republic of China,� he said. �The Pope has very often asked Taiwan to be the bridge between the Holy See and mainland China.�

China has repeatedly said that the Vatican must cut ties with Taiwan before it will discuss diplomatic relations with the Holy See. #####


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