Thursday, February 23, 2006

BEIJING — China yesterday warned Bishop Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, a leading critic of Beijing who was elevated to cardinal this week, not to mix religion with politics.

“We advocate that religious figures should not interfere with politics,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

“We hope that the Catholic Church in Hong Kong will cherish the stability, development and harmony of Hong Kong society,” he said.

Stability is a code word in the Communist Party leadership for accepting its rule and, in Hong Kong’s case, not demanding a more rapid transition to democracy.

Bishop Zen, 74, however, vowed to stick to his outspoken ways, saying he was too old to change his position on issues such as democracy and the rights of the persecuted underground Roman Catholic Church in China.

“I am over 70. There are things that will be hard to change,” he said. “People say I am rebellious. But if you help the underprivileged, you have to speak louder or no one can hear you.”

Bishop Zen was among 15 new cardinals announced by the Vatican on Wednesday. The group, which includes two Americans, will be installed March 24.

Bishop Zen was born in Shanghai on the Chinese mainland but fled communist Chinese rule to Hong Kong at a young age.

Beijing and the Holy See severed relations 55 years ago in the wake of the communist takeover but in recent years have engaged in low-level talks to try to restore ties.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Bishop Zen was realistic about the situation in mainland China.

“The country’s rule over the Chinese church is very strict. For there to be change, for China to be normal like other countries where there is real, complete religious freedom, that is not easy,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.

The Vatican is one of about two dozen states that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a democratically ruled island that Beijing considers part of its territory.

Beijing has long demanded that the Vatican sever its ties with Taiwan and not interfere in China’s domestic affairs before it can consider normalizing ties.

“There is no change in China’s stance towards the Vatican,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday.

In China, believers are forbidden to recognize the pope’s authority and instead must belong to a state-backed church. However, there is still a large underground Roman Catholic following, which the Chinese police regularly harass.

The Vatican estimates it has 8 million followers in China, compared with about 5 million who follow the state-backed church.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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