China has ordained a new Catholic bishop approved by the Vatican for the first time since ties between the sides soured last year, according to church figures with knowledge of the events.
Paul Liang Jiansen was made bishop of the southern city of Jiangmen on March 30, people with ties to the church in Hong Kong and mainland China said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted by media. They said Vatican officials had assented to the ordination before it took place.
China and the Vatican have no official relations and have long sparred over the Holy See's insistence on the right to appoint bishops. China's communist rulers forced Chinese Catholics to cut ties with Rome in 1951 and maintain that bishops be elected by members of the government-backed church.
An accommodation whereby most new bishops received tacit approval from the Vatican appeared to break down last year with China's appointment of Guo Jincai as bishop of the northern city of Chengde without Rome's approval.
The rift worsened after Ma Yinglin was named as head of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church of China, a body also not recognized by the Vatican. Ma's ordination as bishop in 2006 in the southwestern city of Kunming was not recognized by the Vatican.
Chinese officials responded to criticism by accusing Rome of seeking to undermine the independence of the Chinese church and interfering in the rights of Chinese Catholics to practice their faith. China officially records about 6 million Catholics worshipping in 6,300 congregations across the country, although millions more are believed to worship outside the official church.
Word of the new ordination came as the Vatican on Monday opened its fourth annual meeting in Rome on the situation of the church in China with Vatican bureaucrats and representatives from the Chinese church and religious orders. The topic of the three-day meeting was the pastoral situation of the various dioceses in China, a statement said.
The Vatican didn't specify if any mainland Chinese bishops attended, but two Hong Kong prelates have become key papal advisers about the Chinese church: Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, a frequent critic of the official church, and Monsignor Savio Hon Tai-Fai, the No. 2 at the Vatican's Rome-based missionary office.
Liang's recent ordination was also reported by ucanews.com, a news website with close ties to the church in Asia, which said more than 1,400 parishioners attended the ceremony at Jiangmen's Cathedral of Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Liang replaces Bishop Peter Paul Li Panshi, who died in 2007.
Officials with the official Catholic Association in Jiangmen refused to comment, although a secretary reached at the cathedral's administrative office confirmed Liang's ordination and said officials from the ruling Communist Party's United Front Work Department and State Administration of Religious Affairs attended the event. The secretary refused to give her name because her position did not allow her to speak to reporters.
Chinese authorities maintain a tight grip on all religious expression and Beijing police on Sunday detained dozens of worshippers from an unapproved Protestant church who were trying to hold services in a public space after they were evicted from their usual place of worship, a parishioner said.