HONG KONG – The head of Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Church said Sunday that Pope John Paul II's (search) greatest wish was to visit China and criticized Beijing for not launching talks with the Vatican (search), which it currently doesn't recognize.
China demands that Catholics worship only in state-controlled churches, and Beijing does not recognize the pope's authority over the Catholic Church (search). Many Chinese Catholics remain loyal to the Vatican and risk arrest by worshipping in unofficial churches and private homes.
"To visit China and maybe Russia must be the greatest desire of his heart," Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen (search) said.
Zen said the late pope expressed great enthusiasm when he discussed visiting China with Zen. "He was like a child pleading with his mother, 'I really want to go to China,"' Zen told reporters.
The pope died late Saturday in the Vatican after suffering heart and kidney failure.
Zen said Hong Kong's Catholic Church also failed to obtain permission from the local government for the pope to visit Hong Kong in 1999. The territory is a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with promises of civil liberties, including religious freedom.
"The answer we got was it wasn't appropriate," he said.
Zen, a harsh critic of China, blamed Beijing for the lack of progress in Sino-Vatican relations.
"The Vatican has always been eager to start talks, but unfortunately Beijing wasn't interested," Zen said. "The position of the pope hasn't changed. If there is change I hope it comes from Beijing."
Zen said one obstacle is China's demand that the Vatican renounce ties with Beijing's rival, Taiwan. "That's not very friendly," he said.
Zen said he didn't know whether the pope had secretly appointed a cardinal in China. When the pope created new cardinals in 2003, he said he was keeping one name secret. The formula has been used when a pope wants to name a cardinal in a country where the church is oppressed, leading to speculation that it could be a prelate from China.
In a sign of a softening attitude toward the Vatican, Beijing allowed Zen to visit China last year after a six-year ban. Zen also recently visited China with other religious leaders.
The Chinese foreign ministry's Hong Kong office didn't immediately return a call seeking comment on Zen's remarks.