Beijing Bishop Urges Pope to Visit China

Aug 25, 2008 12:18 PM EDT

ROME (AP) - The Beijing bishop appointed by China's state-controlled Catholic Church said in an interview Wednesday that he hopes Pope Benedict XVI will visit his country and that relations with the Vatican are improving.

"We strongly hope that Benedict XVI will make a trip to China," Joseph Li Shan told Italy's RAI state TV. "Relations with the Vatican are constantly improving. We can say that there are big developments."

Li is well-regarded by the Vatican and his installation last year was seen as a positive sign in the long-standing dispute between China and the Holy See over who should appoint bishops.

The officially atheist government dislikes groups that operate outside Communist Party control and has refused to yield authority over bishop's appointments, while the Vatican is loath to concede its traditional right to appoint church leaders.

Both sides have searched for a compromise in recent years, with many bishops being first named by China but then later asking for and receiving the Vatican's approval — as church officials said was the case with Li.

Strains with the Vatican date to 1952 when the Communists, just three years in power, demanded Chinese Catholics cut ties to Rome. Banned for much of the 1960s and '70s when all religion was outlawed, the church has made a rapid recovery in the past 20 years, boasting about 12 million to 15 million followers.

Many of China's Catholics however worship in congregations outside the state-approved church and often are arrested or harassed.

But in Wednesday's interview, Li, whose comments were translated into Italian, said that "the problem of clandestine Catholics does not exist."

Benedict sent a special letter to Catholics in China last year, praising the underground church, but also urging the faithful to reconcile with followers of the official church.

The pope has made the improvement of relations with Beijing a priority of his papacy.

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