The Catholic Church is asking an officially recognized Chinese bishop to step down in the apparent pursuit of closer ties with Beijing, a Catholic news site reported on Wednesday.
An envoy from the Vatican asked Bishop Peter Zhuang of Shantou in the southern province of Guangdong to retire in favor of an excommunicated bishop approved by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the Catholic news site AsiaNews reported.
Meanwhile, a second Vatican-appointed bishop has asked to downgrade himself to act as "assistant" to a government-approved bishop, the site said.
The requests were made after Bishop Zhuang was escorted to Beijing from Dec. 18-22 to meet with central government religious affairs officials and a delegation from the Vatican, the report said.
The report said the request was the second made by the Vatican to Bishop Zhuang, who was secretly consecrated with Vatican approval in 2006, in the space of three months. The Vatican has previously written to Zhuang with a similar request, it said.
Zhuang, who is currently only recognized as a Catholic priest by the Chinese government, was asked to stand aside in favor of Bishop Huang Bingzhang, a long-standing member of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), who has been excommunicated by Rome, AsiaNews reported.
Zhuang, 88, has been under police surveillance since Dec. 11 and was taken to Beijing in the company of a doctor, amid fears for his failing health.
He was taken to the headquarters of the Communist Party-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, where he met with several state-appointed bishops at a government-backed bishops' conference, it said.
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.
Vatican-Taiwan diplomatic links
It said Zhuang was later taken to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where he met with a Vatican delegation including an envoy and three priests. It is likely that the bishop was Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the report said, describing him as "a veteran" in ties with China.
While the Vatican currently maintains formal diplomatic links with the 1911-founded Republic of China government on Taiwan, Beijing and the Vatican resumed official contact in 2014, and Beijing has made an appeal for closer ties to Pope Francis.
A Vatican source told AsiaNews that Bishop Zhuang was merely asked for his "opinion" on the matter, the report said.
The Vatican delegation also traveled to the southeastern province of Fujian to meet with Bishop Vincent Zhan, one of the seven Communist Party-backed bishops awaiting recognition from Rome, and to ask Vatican-recognized Bishop Joseph Guo to consider demotion to act as assistant to Bishop Zhan.
There was no immediate response from the Vatican to the AsiaNews report.
A Catholic church member in Zhuang's diocese of Shantou said Huang had already been on a visit to the diocese.
"He would only have come if he was going to be bishop," the church member said. "We had an audience with him; we thought he was a good bishop; a gentle person."
A second church member said he was against any concessions made by the Vatican to further ties with Beijing, however.
"It's not that I support, or don't support the government on this issue," the church member said. "It's just that I think that the Vatican should stick to its principles."
Hope for unity
A volunteer based in the diocese said he hoped for some kind of "unity" in the appointment of bishops.
"The priesthood and the congregations are of one mind on this; we want to see a unified religion," the volunteer said. "We want it to be Bishop Huang, because he's younger, and he can lead us in the direction of greater unity."
"He came to the diocese, which was building two new cathedrals, and we admired him very much. As for Bishop Zhuang, we have never seen his face," the volunteer said.
Calls to Bishop Huang's home church of St Joseph's rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
A Catholic church member in the southern province of Hainan said she had "no opinion" on the controversy.
"The best-case scenario would be that they get recognized by both sides," she said. "Our religion comes from the Vatican ... but we live in China, so they should get the recognition of the Chinese government as well."
Officials say as many as half of the country's 97 Catholic dioceses are without a bishop.
Anthony Lam, of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, said the controversy has dragged on for many years now, with no sign of resolution.
"We still have a long way to go before Beijing and the Vatican will establish diplomatic relations," Lam said. "The matter of the bishops isn't actually the key issue in that process."
He said the administration of President Xi Jinping, which regards religion as a dangerous foreign import in a country ruled by the atheist Communist Party, has made scant progress in consecrating more Catholic bishops under the CCPA.
'Western hostile forces'
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.
But Xi and religious affairs officials have repeatedly warned against the "infiltration of Western hostile forces" in the form of religion, particularly Christianity.
Xi's tougher policy approach has resulted in much tighter controls on religious believers across the country, including a nationwide ban on children attending religious services or educational events last year.
Chan Sze Chi, lecturer in religious affairs at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said the apparent concession from the Holy See would likely lead to closer diplomatic ties in the long run.
"The Vatican finds the current situation very difficult, but there are long-term strategic considerations," Chan said. "The sooner the Vatican and China establish diplomatic ties, the sooner they can set up some kind of formal relationship between the CCPA and the Vatican."
He said Xi's new strategy on foreign religions appears to have paid off for Beijing.
"China's international strategy has been working very well lately; they have succeeded in getting the Vatican to move faster on this matter," he said. "Of course this will also likely run into opposition and criticism from within the Catholic Church, too."
While Beijing offered its congratulations to Pope Francis, it has also made it clear that better ties with the Vatican can only follow a severing of diplomatic links with Taipei.
The Vatican is the only European state with which Taiwan—as the seat of the 1911 Republic of China founded by Sun Yat-sen—still has full diplomatic relations.
While Taiwan has governed its own affairs under the Republic of China name since defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war, Beijing regards the island as a Chinese province awaiting reunification.
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants.
Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in non-recognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.