(CNSNews.com) - Just weeks after observers expressed optimism that a half-century breach between communist China and the Vatican might soon be healed, a dispute has erupted over who has the authority to appoint Catholic bishops.
China's state-sanctioned "patriotic" Catholic organization, which does not recognize papal authority, this week defied the Vatican by ordaining two bishops without Pope Benedict XVI's approval.
The Vatican responded Thursday by excommunicating the two bishops, in line with canonical law.
Also, Chinese bishops who ordained the new bishops "without pontifical mandate" were automatically excommunicated, according to a provision cited by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
About five million Chinese are affiliated with the patriotic church, but the Vatican estimates that another eight million worship in secret and remain loyal to the pope.
Beijing rejects the notion of an outside authority appointing leaders to head dioceses in China, calling it interference in its internal affairs. This is not a problem with most countries, although Vietnam -- also communist -- has insisted on vetting papal appointments.
Along with the Vatican's ties with Taiwan and China's poor record on religious freedom, the authority-to-ordain dispute lies at the heart of the rift between the world's most populous country and a church boasting 1.1 billion members worldwide.
The row comes as an independent statutory religious freedom watchdog recommended that the U.S. government again include China on a list of "countries of particular concern" because of religious persecution.
"Every religious community in China is subject to serious restrictions, state control, and repression," U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chairman Michael Cromartie said in a letter Thursday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, accompanying the body's annual report.
"The most severe religious freedom abuses are directed against Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Roman Catholics, house church and unregistered Protestants, and spiritual groups such as the Falun Gong," the report said. The violations included "imprisonment, torture and other forms of ill treatment."
On Sunday and again on Wednesday, the patriotic Catholic church organization ordained two new bishops in provinces in south-western and eastern China.
The Vatican in a statement called the move a "grave violation of religious freedom" and "a grave wound to the unity of the church."
The row is likely to set back efforts to repair ties that were severed after Mao Tse-tung's communists took power in China in 1949.
A month ago, newly-consecrated Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun confirmed that the Vatican and Beijing were discussing restoring diplomatic links, a move that would entail the Holy See cutting its diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Zen, a longtime critic of China's religious freedom abuses, has argued in favor of Vatican-Beijing ties, but this week he called for the Vatican to halt the talks, because of the row over the bishops.
He told a Hong Kong newspaper that the discussions could not continue under the present circumstances, "because people will think we are prepared to surrender."
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