China Catholic Church Ordains Bishop

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By WILLIAM FOREMAN, 6.12.2007

GUANGZHOU, China (AP) — Dozens of police guarded a Catholic church in China on Tuesday as a priest supported by the Vatican was ordained as a bishop — a move that might mark a further easing of tensions between Beijing and the Holy See.

Security forces used metal barricades to block off the entrance of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Guangzhou, a booming southern city once known as Canton.

Only people with special red badges were allowed to attend the ordination of Bishop Joseph Gan Junqiu, and most of the followers arrived in tour buses and were steered clear of the media.

Several past ordinations have upset the Vatican because the Chinese Catholic Church promoted priests who did not have the pope's blessing. The Communist government, which cut ties with the Holy See in 1951, has said that the Vatican should not decide who becomes a bishop in China's official Catholic Church.

But Tuesday's ordination was different because Gan had the Vatican's approval. The 43-year-old priest, who has studied in Belgium and France, has publicly declared his fidelity to the pope, as Pope Benedict XVI asked of Chinese bishops in a letter to the Chinese faithful earlier this year.

After a ceremony that lasted more than two hours, Gan emerged from the Sacred Heart Cathedral, the largest dual-steepled Gothic stone church in China. Dressed in a flowing white robe and tall bishop's hat, Gan briefly mingled with clergy and the faithful on the front steps of the church, which locals call the "she shi," or the "stone chamber" because it is made mostly of granite.

Gan did not speak to reporters, but a senior church official, Lu Guocun, said he was glad that the new bishop had the Vatican's support.

"This is really good news," said Lu, a vice chairman of the Catholic Patriotic Association of China. "We think that if the bishop that we choose can improve relations with the Vatican, then that's a good thing."

But Lu added he was unsure whether Gan's ordination will have any effect on ties with the Vatican. He said that fell into the realm of diplomacy.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters that while China wants to improve relations with the Vatican, it must "take into consideration the history and reality of the Chinese Catholic Church."

Hong Kong's Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of the most influential Roman Catholic figures in Asia, doubted Gan's ordination would lead to a major breakthrough in Beijing-Vatican relations.

"There have been many ordinations of bishops who have had the blessing of the Holy See," Zen told The Associated Press in Hong Kong, where the Roman Catholic Church is allowed to operate because the Chinese city enjoys a semiautonomous status.

But Zen added that last year there were at least three cases of bishops being appointed by China without the Vatican's blessing. He said that was an anomaly and there has been renewed consultation between the two sides about appointments.

"Now, I am pleased to see we are getting back to the trend of previous years," he said.

AP correspondents Cassie Biggs in Hong Kong and Audra Ang in Beijing contributed to this report.