HONG KONG (Reuters) - China blocked a Hong Kong Catholic priest and rights activist from entering the mainland last week in what he said may have been a show of unhappiness with the Vatican for excommunicating two bishops recently ordained by Beijing.
In a sign of escalating tension between the Roman Catholic Church and Beijing, China said on Monday the Vatican's recent excommunication of the Chinese bishops who were ordained without papal approval was "unreasonable" and "rude.
Father Franco Mella, who recently took part in protests in Hong Kong against China's unilateral ordination of priests, said Chinese immigration officials did not give him any explanation for cancelling his Chinese visa when he presented himself at a checkpoint in China's southern city of Shenzhen on July 19.
"Perhaps it was due to the ordination of the bishop of Shantou (in southern China). That was not recognized by the Vatican and the bishop was then excommunicated by the Vatican," Mella told Reuters on Tuesday.
Mella, who had intended to visit a church in central Henan province, said this was the first time in 20 years of living in Hong Kong that he had been denied entry into mainland China.
Milan-born Mella, 62, is well known for helping refugees and campaigning for residency rights for mainland Chinese women married to Hong Kong men.
"They didn't say anything. They kept me waiting for an hour, watching TV and then three of them came to show me my passport and the stamp on the visa showed it was canceled," Mella said.
"When I asked them when I can apply to visit China again, they said they didn't know," he added.
Two other Hong Kong-based foreign priests who did not join the protests were also turned away by Chinese immigration officials, one on July 21 and the other about six weeks ago, Mella said.
"We are just common priests and we shouldn't bear the confrontation between Beijing and the Vatican," he added.
Mella said he would press on with his work and apply for a China visa in September, when he plans to lead a group of Catholics from Italy on a tour to China.
The Catholic Church has a range of humanitarian projects in China, including helping the disabled and patients of leprosy, or Hansen's disease.
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.
The ordination of bishops without the Pope's approval and China's angry denunciation of subsequent Vatican condemnation have stymied any attempts at conciliation between the two sides.
Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, an outspoken critic of Beijing, wrote in an opinion piece for Catholic website ucanews.com that Chinese Catholics would not accept the government-ordained bishops "and will always be on the side of the pope."
"Nobody knows how long the severe winter will last, but our faithful are not afraid, or they will overcome their fear with faith and prayer, which will give them strength to imitate the canonized martyrs and innumerable living heroes of faith," Zen wrote.
(Reporting by Donny Kwok and Tan Ee Lyn; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Sugita Katyal)