Authorities in the northern Chinese province of Hebei have detained a Catholic bishop appointed by the Pope ahead of an official consecration ceremony, in a move likely to further strain ties between the Vatican and Beijing.
"Father Jospeh Sun Jigen, appointed by the Pope Bishop of Handan in the Hebei region, has been arrested by the police, possibly to prevent the episcopal consecration planned for June 29," the Vatican-linked Asianews agency reported on Thursday.
Sun's appointment came amid vows by Beijing to speed up the appointment of bishops approved by its ruling Communist Party without consulting the Vatican.
However, his appointment had been agreed on by both sides, the report said.
Bob Fu, founder of the U.S.-based Christian human rights group ChinaAid, said Beijing had been sending out mixed signals in recent years about the approval of bishops to serve its estimated 15 million Catholics.
"Sometimes they keep up some kind of communication with the Vatican, and appoint a few Vatican-approved bishops," Fu said.
"The Vatican has called on China many times to show a bit of sincerity in improving [bilateral] ties, but China's policy ... lacks consistency."
"This makes it very hard to achieve any kind of breakthrough."
Rush to ordain
China's state-controlled Catholic church says it wants to quickly ordain at least 40 bishops, a move likely to further aggravate tensions with the Vatican.
The official Xinhua news agency quoted Yang Yu, spokesman for the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, as saying more than 40 of the country's 97 dioceses were without a bishop.
The report said Church leaders agreed at a recent meeting that the church would strive to select and ordain bishops at those diocese without delay.
Tensions between Beijing and the Vatican have been high since the Vatican protested the ordination of a bishop in Chengde in November without its approval, and accused China of forcing its bishops and priests to attend an official conference.
Beijing's Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association does not acknowledge the authority of Pope Benedict XVI and regards those who remain loyal to the papacy as undesirable elements.
The Chengde appointment was the first time since 2006 that China's Catholic Church is known to have appointed bishops without approval from Rome, but officials said this week that more appointments could follow.
A matter of sovereignty
Yang Yu, spokesman for the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, said recently that more than 40 of the country's 97 dioceses are without a bishop.
Church leaders agreed at a recent meeting that the church would strive to select and ordain bishops at those diocese without delay, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
"This is a major obstacle in the improvement of relations between China and the Vatican," Fu said. "The Chinese government ... regards this as a matter of national sovereignty."
"[It] insists that Catholics and Protestants, as well as other religious and social groups, submit to its absolute control," he said.
Hangzhou-based independent political commentator Zan Aizong said the recent announcement of Beijing's intention to ordain more bishops as soon as possible was "regrettable."
"Ever since 1949, they have regarded Catholicism and Protestantism as the tools of Western interference," Zan said.
"The aim of the [state-backed religious associations] is to cut off any connection they may have with any overseas [body]."
China's officially-sanctioned Catholic Church, has between five and six million members, while an underground church loyal to Rome has as many as 10 million followers.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.