China and the Vatican are waging a new battle after Beijing ordained a bishop without papal approval in the first such ceremony in four years.
The Vatican has charged that Beijing forced bishops to participate in the ordination of state-sponsored Catholic Association bishop Joseph Guo Jincai last weekend
But Beijing countered that the the Vatican's opposition to the move amounted to intolerance and a restriction on freedom of religion.
"Any kind of allegation or intervention constitutes an act of restriction of freedom and nontolerance," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
The Vatican said the ordination was "a serious violation" of Catholic discipline and "offends the Holy Father."
It was the first time since 2006 that China's Catholic Church is known to have appointed bishops without approval from Rome.
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 Vatican said a number of bishops loyal to the pope were forced by government officials to attend the ordination.
"Subjected to pressures"
"Various bishops were subjected to pressures and restrictions on their freedom of movement, with the aim of forcing them to participate," it said.
Gong Minquan, a spokesman for the Kansas-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which supports Chinese Catholics who refuse to join the state-sponsored Catholic body, said that Father Guo's ordination was illegal.
"According to law, any bishop must be approved by the church of which they are a part, or they can't take office as a bishop," Gong said.
"The bishop appointed by the Chinese government last Saturday didn't win the Vatican's approval. They shouldn't have appointed this bishop."
He said that a number of Catholic bishops loyal to the Vatican are currently being held in detention.
"There are a number of Catholic bishops still in prison, such as Bishop Su from Baoding in Hebei," Gong said. "Now, we have no idea of his whereabouts."
"Impeding religious freedom"
Liu Qing, president of the New York-based group Human Rights in China, said it is Beijing that is impeding religious freedoms for its citizens in its interference in the Catholic faith.
"China basically doesn't have freedom of religion," Liu said.
"The Chinese Communist Party treats religions like government organs under its direct and unifying control," he added.
"Secular powers shouldn't enquire too much into religious affairs. That is the meaning of religious freedom."
China is included in a U.S. State Department blacklist of countries that restrict religious freedom.
The country came up for criticism in the department's annual religious freedom report released last week.
Hong said Thursday the report was a form of interference in China's internal affairs.
"We urge the U.S. to do more work that benefits development of bilateral relations," he said.
Reported by Gao Shan for Radio Free Asia's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.