(CNSNews.com) - On the same day that Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese martyrs to sainthood Sunday, the Chinese communist government in Beijing lashed out in rage over the Pope's act in one of the most politically charged events of his pontificate.
The new Chinese saints, 87 Chinese and 33 missionaries, were killed between 1648 and 1930 because of their loyalty to their Christian faith, the Vatican said.
China, in turn, said most of the martyrs were traitors executed for breaking laws during the 1839-42 Opium War or the 1898-1900 Boxer Uprising, during both of which China was battling colonial invaders. Beijing called the sainthoods an insulting glorification of imperialism.
Beijing's communist government does not allow its Catholics to recognize the Pope, according to an article on this subject reported on FoxNews.com.
The Beijing government has launched an unprecedented, harsh attack against the Vatican in past weeks, fueled by the Pope's selection of October 1, which is Communist China's National Day, for the canonizations.
Attempting to reassure Beijing about his intentions, the 80-year-old Pope said the decision to make the martyrs saints reflected only a desire to honor all Chinese, and the Pope suggested that the Vatican would have no objections to an honest and open debate with China about the colonial times which coincided with the missionary period.
In his Sunday homily, the Pope called those centuries "complex and difficult periods in the history of China," and he said the canonizations should not be used as an occasion to pass judgements on China's political history.
"This present celebration is not the time to make judgments about those historical times. It could be and should be done in other circumstances," the Pope said.
An audience of 100,000, including many ethnic Chinese, attended the canonization in St. Peter's Square. As the Pope read a liturgical formula making the martyrs saints of the Roman Catholic Church, the audience erupted with applause.
"Today, with this solemn proclamation of sainthood, the Church only intends to recognize that those martyrs are an example of courage and coherence for all of us and give honor to the noble Chinese people," the Pope said.
A top bishop of China's state-backed Catholic Church said on Saturday that the canonizations were a hypocritical insult that made a mockery of Rome's desire to improve ties with Beijing.
The Vatican said the choice of the date of the ceremony was not political but simply because October 1 is the feast of St Teresa of Lisieux, patroness of missions, and appropriate because it was taking place during the 2000 Holy Year.
China's government-backed church says it has four million members. The Vatican says eight million Chinese are loyal to the Pope and worship in secret.
During the ceremony, he also canonized three new saints from the United States, Sudan and Spain.
The American saint canonized was Katharine Drexel, who left the comfortable life of a wealthy Philadelphia family in the 19th century and became a nun to help Native Americans and African-Americans. She is the United States' second native-born saint.
Drexel founded the sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to start up 60 schools for African-Americans and Native Americans in the American west and southwest. She died in 1955.
The second non-Chinese martyr saint canonized Sunday was Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese-born slave who was freed after being bought by an Italian consular official in Khartoum and taken to Italy. She became a nun in Italy, where she died in 1947.
The third non-Chinese canonized by the Pope was Sister Maria Josefa of the Heart of Jesus, who was born in the Spanish Basque country in 1842 and dedicated her life to the service of the sick. She died in 1912.