Vatican in new dispute with China

The Vatican on Thursday warned China that efforts at reconciliation will be set back if bishops loyal to the pope are forced to attend the ordination of a bishop in the state-backed church.

China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, but Pope Benedict XVI appears to have has made progress in improving relations with Beijing with the two sides agreeing on a number of bishop candidates in recent years.

However, a strongly worded statement issued Thursday said the Holy See was "disturbed by reports" that a number of bishops loyal to the pope are being forced by government officials to attend the ordination in Chengde, in northeastern Hebei, this weekend.

It said the candidate for bishop, the Rev. Joseph Guo Jincai, did not have the pope's approval.

The Vatican said if the reports were true that bishops are being forced to participate in the ceremony, the Holy See would consider it as "grave violations of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience."

"It would also consider such an ordination as illicit and damaging to the constructive relations that have been developing in recent times," the statement said.

Worship in communist China is allowed only in state-backed churches, but millions of Chinese belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.

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

The Vatican said it has contacted Chinese authorities and made its position clear.