BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Monday the Vatican's recent excommunication of two Chinese bishops who were ordained without papal approval was "unreasonable" and "rude," in a sign of escalating tensions between the Vatican and Beijing.
In the government's first response to the Vatican's recent denunciations of the ordinations by China's state-sanctioned Catholic church, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs said it was "greatly concerned" about the excommunication of Joseph Huang Bingzhang and Lei Shiyin.
The "threats of excommunication" are "extremely unreasonable and rude, which has severely hurt the feelings of Chinese Catholics and made its members feel sad," state news agency Xinhua quoted a spokesman for the bureau as saying.
Huang was ordained without papal approval as bishop in Shantou City in southern Guangdong province in mid-July, and Lei
was named as bishop of the city of Leshan on June 29.
Chinese Catholics, believed to number between 8 million and 12 million, are divided between those who are members of the Church backed by the Communist Party and those loyal to the pope.
"History has proven that the Chinese Catholic Church will not be at a standstill because of threats from the Vatican," the statement said. "The majority of priests and believers will more resolutely choose the path of independently selecting and ordaining its bishops."
The Vatican has said Beijing authorities had coerced some bishops loyal to the Holy See to attend Huang's ordination service against their will.
China's state-backed Catholic Church said last Friday it planned to ordain more bishops, a move that could inflame tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and Beijing.
Beijing and the Vatican broke formal diplomatic relations shortly after the Chinese Communists took power in 1949. They differ over who has the authority to appoint bishops but had previously been engaging in a secretive and cautious exploration of normalizing of ties.
"The Chinese government's position on improving relations with the Vatican is consistent and clear," Monday's report said.
"If the Vatican is sincere about improving relations, it should abolish the so-called 'excommunications,' and earnestly return to the correct path of dialogue," the report said.
The Vatican says it is willing to start talks with China aimed at Beijing recognizing the Church's autonomy in its internal affairs and forge diplomatic relations.
But China says the Vatican must first sever ties with Taiwan, which China considers a renegade territory.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Sally Huang; Editing by Alex Richardson)