China's government-backed Catholic church was ordaining a bishop who did not have the pope's approval Saturday, despite objections from the Vatican and comments by a key papal adviser that the move was "illegitimate" and "shameful."

The ordination ceremony for the Rev. Guo Jincai was nearing its close Saturday morning, according to a man answering the telephone at the office of the Pingquan Church in Chengde city, in northeastern Hebei province. He did not give his name, as is common with Chinese officials.

China's first ordination without papal approval in almost five years threatened to hurt the officially atheist country's already shaky relations with the Vatican.

Hong Kong's cardinal, who is a key adviser to the pope, had called the planned ordination "illegitimate" and "shameful."

Communist China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, and worship is allowed only in state-backed churches, although millions of Chinese belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.

In recent years, under Pope Benedict XVI, relations have improved. Disputes over appointments in China's official church have been avoided by quietly conferring on candidates, leading to several ordinations of bishops with the Holy See's blessing.

However, Guo does not have the pope's approval. The Vatican said Thursday it was "disturbed by reports" that a number of bishops loyal to the pope were being forced by government officials to attend the ordination. It warned China that reconciliation efforts will be set back if the reports turned out to be true.

AsiaNews, a Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency that closely follows the church in China, said Friday that three bishops were being pressured to attend the ceremony and that at least two hadn't been heard from after being told to celebrate the ordination itself.

The Vatican declined to comment Friday beyond what it said in its communique Thursday.

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association's vice chairman, Liu Bainian, said attendance by bishops at the ceremony would be voluntary and the ordination would go ahead because the Chengde diocese needs a bishop. He said the association had informed the Vatican about its plan as early as two years ago.

"A Catholic diocese cannot be without a bishop, or the Gospel cannot be spread," Liu said. "We should not let any political reasons interfere with the spread of the Gospel in China."

He said that in time, China would elect bishops for more than 40 Catholic dioceses that are currently without them and expressed hope that the Vatican would endorse them.

Guo's ordination is the first without papal approval since 2006, when three bishop ordinations in China drew Vatican criticism, said an expert at a Catholic research center in Hong Kong who declined to be named.

The move came ahead of a meeting to choose the leadership of the government-backed church.

Liu maintained that the pope was "very friendly" to China but that some others in the Vatican were not.

Recent estimates by scholars and church activists put the number of Chinese Catholics loyal to the pope as high as 60 million — three times the size of the official church.

Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen praised the Holy See for speaking out against the ordination as he arrived Friday at the Vatican for a meeting of cardinals to discuss religious freedom and other issues.

Zen, an outspoken advocate of democracy and religious freedom in China, has long been mistrusted by Beijing.

"It is really shameful, such an attempt to make another illegitimate ordination," Zen said. "It's against the whole civilization of today."

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Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome.