A conflict between China's Communist leadership and the Roman Catholic Church has deepened following the recent appointment of three Chinese Catholic bishops without the approval of Rome. The appointments have stalled negotiations that had been going on for years, and were aimed at restoring diplomatic ties severed after the Communists came to power in China more than a half-century ago. Reconciliation efforts have triggered a separate struggle over power, and souls.
The man behind the controversial appointments is Liu Bainian, the influential vice chairman of China's Patriotic Catholic Association, the entity set up by the Communists nearly 50 years ago to keep tabs on the activities of Chinese Catholics.
For years, Liu has assumed authority that the Catholic Church reserves only for the Pope: appointing bishops, and exercising almost total control over their work. To critics, this has earned him the nickname of China's "Black Pope."
Liu hardly seems an imposing figure as he greets a VOA reporter in a fly-ridden courtyard in Beijing. He says he favors the normalization of ties with the Vatican, but discounts the possibility of giving up any of his power. He says he believes the Chinese government has good reason for refusing to allow the Vatican to appoint Chinese bishops - a key demand of the Holy See in the negotiations.
"The citizens and society are afraid that bishops appointed by Rome will be like the bishops appointed in Poland and the Czech Republic, or like the Cardinal in Hong Kong, who is too involved in political affairs," he said.
Liu refers to Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, whose outspoken defense of democracy has made Beijing wary.
Cardinal Zen recently told VOA he believes Liu and his association may be worried about losing power, and suggested Liu might have pushed the appointments in order to sabotage the negotiations.
"That [was] very disloyal and impolite, and it makes it impossible to proceed with the negotiations. We are not sure if this really comes from the government. Did the government use the Patriotic Association? Maybe they [the association] are worried about their future in case the dialogue reaches a conclusion, which is the normalization of the situation of the Catholic Church," said Cardinal Zen.
Liu is visibly irked when asked if he is concerned about losing his authority and livelihood. He compares his situation to that of another, somewhat more powerful figure.
"I will raise an impolite question in response to yours: The next time the U.S. president seeks re-election, would you ask him: 'Are you seeking reelection because you are afraid you may not have something to eat if you are not re-elected?'" he replied.
Church scholars say it remains unclear who is sabotaging the talks, Liu and the Patriotic Catholic Association, or higher-ranking Communist leaders who are still wary of the Vatican, and are using the association to stall the process.
While Beijing has said it wants to normalize ties with the Holy See as part of a campaign to boost its international image, scholars say they are not sure the leadership is ready to cede any power to the Pope, who is technically a foreign head of state.
Analysts say the number of conversions to Catholicism in China continues to grow, and they say this may also be causing the Chinese leadership to stall.
Worshippers, many of them young, pack a Catholic Church for a six am. Mass on a weekday morning in Beijing, where 200 people were recently baptized in one day.
A churchgoer who did not give her name reflects on the struggle between her country's leadership and the Catholic Church. She says that at the end of the day, it is more a political conflict than anything else.
"It does not affect our beliefs as Chinese Catholics," she said. "But the thing here is that the Chinese government and the Vatican are locked in a confrontation. There will probably be no reconciliation. Why not? Because China is ruled by the Communist Party, which does not support a reconciliation. All the Catholics here think the same thing, so they go to churches every day to pray. This is what we can do."
Neither side appears ready to budge on the issue of bishops. The Vatican has stressed its willingness to hold a constructive dialogue with the Chinese authorities. But earlier this month, the Holy See issued a statement expressing Pope Benedict XVI's "profound displeasure" at China's decision to appoint bishops without his consent.
The Patriotic Association, for its part, has vowed to appoint more bishops with or without Rome's approval - signaling further delays in the resumption of negotiations.