Vatican: China mounting obstacles to dialogue

Vatican City - The Vatican on Thursday denounced new arrests of Catholic bishops in China and accused Beijing authorities of mounting "obstacles" to having a dialogue with the Holy See.

The Vatican press office issued the complaint at the close of an annual Vatican meeting that is studying the problems of the Catholic Church in China.

Pope Benedict XVI has made improving often tense relations with Beijing a priority of his papacy. In China, worship is allowed only in state-backed churches. Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations that are loyal to Rome.

In 2007, Benedict sent a special letter to Catholics in China, praising the underground church but also urging the faithful to reconcile with followers of the official church.

In Thursday's statement, the Vatican denounced the new arrest of the bishop of Zhengding, Monsignor Giulio Jia Zhiguo, and lamented that other priests had been detained or subjected to "undeserved pressures" by government authorities.

"Such situations create obstacles to the climate of dialogue with the competent authorities which the Holy Father vividly hoped for in his letter," said the statement from the Vatican press office.

In China, the vice chairman of the official Catholic church insisted Beijing's determination to improve relations remained steady.

"The position of the Chinese side has not changed. The Chinese government always hopes to improve ties between the two sides at the earliest date possible," said Liu Bainian, of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the party-controlled body that oversees the state-backed Catholic church.

Liu said he was unaware of both the Vatican statement and of Jia's alleged arrest, but added: "If someone breaks the law, that should not be seen as China creating a hindrance to improving ties."

China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Communist Party took power. The state-backed churches recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops.

Liu also reiterated Beijing's preconditions for improving ties with the Vatican, calling on the Holy See to not interfere in China's internal affairs and to cut ties with Taiwan, a self-governed island that Beijing considers part of its territory.

The Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, whose Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency closely follows the plight of the Catholic Church in China, said Beijing authorities had been cracking down recently on both underground and official prelates.

Priests have been arrested for celebrating underground Masses and prelates belonging to the official church have been forced to publicly criticize Vatican interference, Cervellera wrote this week in AsiaNews. He said the crackdown was aimed at breaking the ties forming between the official and underground churches.