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Beijing Slaps At The Vatican

China's state-controlled Catholic church took a swipe at the Vatican Thursday, ordaining five bishops in a ceremony that did not auger well for efforts to end fifty years of official hostilities.

Priests in white ceremonial vestments and nuns in black habits gathered with scores of believers for the ordination in Beijing's historic South Cathedral. Presided over by a senior bishop in the state church, the ceremony followed church ritual, but was missing the pope's approval.

The timing of the ceremony at a Beijing cathedral appeared to be an open challenge to the Pope, just hours before he was due to ordain 12 new bishops around the world at St Peter's in Rome.

Plainclothes police officers looked on in Beijing as the new bishops, dressed in flowing white robes with yellow braid, knelt to take their vows before a congregation of 300 in the Romanesque-style church, which can hold up to 1,000.

Police officers were stationed on the snow-filled streets outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, still bedecked with Christmas decorations.

In the congregation were Communist Party "United Front" officials, nuns and priests as well as ordinary worshippers.

China's determination to go ahead in the face of blunt Vatican denunciations appeared to mark the breakdown of secret talks aimed at forging diplomatic relations, now stymied by the Vatican's ties with Taiwan, a rebel province in Beijing's eyes.

Although the ceremony followed Roman Catholic practice, the five bishops were picked by the Patriotic Catholic Association, which is loyal to China's atheist Communist rulers.

The authority of the Pope as head of the one billion member Roman Catholic Church is based in part on his sole right to appoint bishops and cardinals worldwide.

China views the bitterly divisive issue as a matter of national sovereignty.

The Vatican called the ordinations in Beijing a disappointing setback after positive signals recently that the two sides were ready to improve relations.

"This gesture will raise obstacles that certainly hinder the process," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Tuesday, before the ordinations.

China and the Vatican have had no formal relations since 1951. Newly in power, the Communist Party then kicked out missionaries and forced Catholics to sever ties with the Vatican to end what the government saw as foreign influence. The Vatican switched allegiances to Taiwan, where many Chinese priests and nuns fled.

Although done without the pope's approval, Thursday's ordinations were not necessarily invalid. Bishop Liu Yuanren of Nanjing, president of the state-approved Chinese Catholic Bishops College, performed the consecrations. Liu was believed to have been consecrated by a bishop approved by the Vatican so his appointments under church law represent an unbroken chain to papal authority.

By the official church's count, there are million Catholics in China, with 60,000 new members each year. Foreign scholars put the total at 12 million. Many church members, including priests, move between official and underground church.

Overseas monitoring groups say persecution of Catholics worshipping outside state control persists in some areas, with the detentions of priests and worshippers.

©2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report