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China ordains new bishop with apparent Vatican OK

BEIJING -- China ordained a US-educated Catholic bishop yesterday with apparent papal approval, just days after it carried out two unauthorized ordinations that the Vatican said seriously wounded the church and evoked ''profound displeasure."

The Rev. Paolo Pei Junmin emerged from Nanguan Cathedral in Shenyang, the largest city in China's northeastern rust belt, wearing a gold robe and a white miter -- a bishop's pointed hat -- after a two-hour ordination service. Pei, 37, studied theology in the mid-1990s at a seminary in Pennsylvania, and is reportedly a likely successor to Jin Peixian, the 80-year-old bishop of Shenyang.

Pei's ordination was the latest in a roller-coaster ride of actions in the past year that built -- and more recently dashed -- hopes of a rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican.

China's atheist Communist Party severed ties with the Vatican shortly after the 1949 revolution that brought it to power. China rejects Vatican authority over the nation's 10 million to 12 million Catholics, some of whom worship in state-sanctioned churches that reject papal control. Others worship in clandestine churches loyal to the Holy See.

The Vatican-affiliated AsiaNews agency quoted an unnamed Vatican source as saying Pei was ''an excellent candidate from all points of view," and that he had received approval from Pope Benedict XVI, who has stated his hopes to travel to China.

Pei, ordained in 1992, was among the first Chinese priests sent abroad to study. He obtained degrees in biblical studies and theology from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, and returned to China in 1996. He met Pope Benedict last August during a trip to the Vatican.

China's state-sanctioned churches operate under the control of the party-run Catholic Patriotic Association, which many underground Catholics see as a divisive force in their faith.

China's government news agency Xinhua said yesterday that Beijing ''regrets the criticism from the Vatican" over the ordination last week of two other Catholic bishops. Their ordination triggered a scathing warning from the Vatican that the two might face its worst possible punishment -- excommunication, or banishment -- from the church unless they were coerced into accepting the posts.

Until the government's ordinations of bishops, several factors fueled hopes in the past year for normalized China-Vatican ties.

Faith in Marxism, once widespread in China, has collapsed, and the nation's leaders, while still atheist, endorse ''freedom of religion," even as imprisonment of underground clergy and worshipers remains frequent. Moreover, some analysts say Beijing is eager to have the Vatican sever diplomatic ties to Taiwan, which it claims as a renegade province, and reestablish ties with China.

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