VATICAN CITY – The Vatican expressed "grave concern" on Monday for a Chinese bishop who it says was "forcibly removed" from his office several weeks ago and whose whereabouts are unknown.
The matter is the latest episode in a wider, decades-old dispute between the Vatican and China's communist authorities over papal authority to appoint bishops.
"The Holy See is observing with grave concern the personal situation of Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, forcibly removed from his episcopal see some time ago," the Vatican said in a written statement.
"The diocesan Catholic community and his relatives have no news or reasons for his removal, nor do they know where he is being held," the statement said.
Shao was appointed by the pope in September and posted to Wenzhou, an eastern city which has a large Christian community. Last week, a Vatican-affiliated missionary news service said Shao's disappearance is believed to be part of an attempt to persuade him to join the Communist-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association church.
Chinese authorities don't recognize Shao's appointment by the Vatican.
Last week, Germany's ambassador to China said the bishop appears to have been forced by Chinese authorities to move to unknown locations four times over the past year. The diplomat called for restoration of the bishop's "full freedom of movement."
The Holy See on Monday described itself as being "profoundly saddened for this and other similar episodes that unfortunately do not facilitate ways of understanding."
China cut relations with the Holy See in 1951, after the Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope's authority. Pope Francis has said he wants to improve relations with Beijing.
The Vatican expressed hope that Shao may return as soon as possible to the diocese and "be assured the possibility of serenely exercising his episcopal ministry."
"We are all invited to pray for Bishop Shao Zhumin and the path of the Catholic church in China," the Holy See's statement concluded.
China has an estimated 12 million Catholics, many of whom worship in non-state sanctioned congregations that often overlap with the government-sanctioned church.
Separately, the Vatican said on Monday that the 89-year-old bishop of Tsining, in Inner Mongolia, part of continental China, died of illness on June 9. Ordained in 1956, Monsignor Giovanni Liu Shigong, earlier in his clerical career, was forced to do farm labor to support himself, and during part of the Cultural Revolution had to do forced labor.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio