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CURRENT ISSUE:  September 19, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 16Oakland, CA

Hopes for China-Vatican relations hit road block

VATICAN CITY—After months of backroom negotiations aimed at harmonizing relations between the world’s largest Church and its most populous country, China and the Vatican find themselves locked in a bureaucratic wrestling match with little room to maneuver.

Ever since the death of Pope John Paul II this past April, a wave of optimism has been building over the possibility that decades of icy relations between China and the Vatican were beginning to thaw.

But that wave subsided Sept. 10 after the Chinese government appeared to reject Pope Benedict XVI’s invitation to four Chinese bishops to join him in Rome for an upcoming synod, an international congress of Roman Catholic bishops.

Church officials say the pope’s invitation to the Chinese bishops was aimed at reconciling the Communist Party’s Catholic Patriotic Association of China and the country’s “underground” church, which is loyal to the Vatican.

An estimated 5 million Chinese Catholics belong to the state-controlled church, which severed ties with the Vatican in 1951 after China’s atheist Communist Party took control of government. The underground church is believed to have at least 8 million faithful.

A key sticking point has been who holds power to appoint Chinese bishops. The Vatican maintains the pope has sole authority in naming bishops in China or any other country, while Catholic Patriotic Association of China officials say that power belongs to the communist government.

Two of the bishops, Jin Luxian of Shanghai and Li Duan of Xian, are key leaders in the official church who reportedly have the Vatican’s tacit approval. A third, Bishop Li Jingfeng, 85, of Fengziang, was recognized by the official Chinese church in 2004 despite his longtime membership in the underground church. The fourth, Bishop Wei Jingyi, 47, of Qiqihar, is a well-known papal loyalist who has spent four years in Chinese labor camps for his ties to the underground church.

Reconciliation might be expected to undercut the powers of the state-controlled church and marginalize powerful CPAC officials like Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing, Vatican observers note.

“They are just worried about their uselessness,” said Father Bernardo Cervellera, a China expert with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missionaries. Father Cervellera said the Vatican had bypassed the CPAC and sought approval of the bishops’ visit from the highest levels of Chinese government.



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