China has rejected Vatican invitations to four Chinese bishops, including a member of the unofficial Catholic Church, to attend a gathering in Rome. The Chinese government said the invitations showed no respect.
China's state media Saturday announced Beijing's rejection of Pope Benedict the 16th's invitations to the four bishops to attend an October meeting of bishops in Rome.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted an unnamed spokesman for the government-approved Catholic Patriotic Association as saying the pope's invitation showed "no respect," because Rome already had been informed the bishops were too old or ill to attend.
Joseph Zen is the bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong, which is loyal to the Holy See. In an earlier interview, he said relations have slowly improved between Beijing and the Vatican, and the papal invitations were a step in the right direction.
"Among the four names, three names are bishops accepted by the government. Some of them were ordained without approval from the Holy See. But, the Holy Father is still inviting them. That means the Holy Father recognizes bishops appointed by the government."
One of the invited bishops is a member of the unofficial Catholic Church, which is not recognized by China.
Xinhua quoted the unnamed spokesman as saying, if the Vatican sincerely wants to improve relations, it would need to "take real actions, rather than put up new barriers."
China cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, two years after the officially atheist Communist Party took power. Since then, Beijing only allows Chinese Catholics to worship at state-sponsored churches in which the bishops are chosen by the government, not the Vatican, as is the practice elsewhere in the world.
Religious freedom advocates say millions of Chinese worship in unofficial churches that are loyal to the Holy See.
Chinese authorities often crack down on these so-called underground churches, throwing their members in prison.
The dispute over who can appoint bishops remains the main obstacle to the restoration of official ties between the Holy See and China. Beijing also protests the Vatican's recognition of Taiwan, the self-governed island that China regards as a part of its territory.