HONG KONG — Amid tight security, China’s Catholics have ordained their first new bishop in three years, signaling a possible thawing in tension between the Vatican and Beijing.
Bishop Joseph Zhang Yinlin, 44, was ordained on Tuesday in a cathedral in the city of Anyang, in Henan Province, before about 1,400 worshipers. Outside, hundreds of police officers set up a security cordon that one attendee likened to the security measures at an airport, according to the Catholic news agency UCANews.
The tension between the Chinese government and church officials stems from the fact that after the Communist Party came to power in 1949, it broke off the country’s official ties with the Vatican. The government runs its own official church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which appoints its own priests and bishops, because it views papal control over this process as an affront to its sovereignty. There are as many as 12 million Catholics in China.
But many of the faithful in China bristle at the idea of an officially atheist government exercising control over their church. In July 2012, the last bishop to be ordained in China, Thaddeus Ma Daqin in Shanghai, announced at his consecration that he was resigning from the official church. He was then stripped of his title and sent to a seminary outside Shanghai. The Vatican, for its part, has excommunicated at least two bishops ordained by the Chinese church in recent years who did not have the pope’s approval.
The ordination of Bishop Zhang appears to signal a return to a tacit agreement that the official church will only put forward candidates for bishop who have the Vatican’s approval. Bishop Zhang was approved by the Vatican, and his ordination was also announced by the official church in China. Also at the ceremony was another Vatican-approved candidate for bishop in another city in Henan, according to UCANews.
Zhang Qiulin, Bishop Zhang’s brother, who attended the ceremony, played down the police presence, saying that the officers were there “to help with maintaining order.”
“Everything went very smoothly,” he said by telephone.
Yet even as China and the Vatican were moving forward with Bishop Zhang’s ordination, the government in one of China’s most prosperous provinces, Zhejiang, was forcibly removing crosses from Protestant churches, leading to protests from the faithful in a region of China where Christianity has made deep inroads.
The crackdown is part of a broader effort by President Xi Jinping to control elements of civil society that may threaten the Communist Party’s 66-year hold on power. Mr. Xi was the top leader in Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007.
On Tuesday, the same day as Bishop Zhang’s ordination, the local government in the city of Jinhua in central Zhejiang publicly denounced a pastor, Bao Guohua. Using harsh language reminiscent of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, it also accused him and his wife of embezzling church funds. The couple, as well as five other people, are also accused of “instigating others to disrupt the social order,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Chen Jiangang, a lawyer representing the Jinhua City Church, where Mr. Bao and his wife are pastors, said that the couple fell into legal trouble after they resisted the government’s order to remove a cross. Mr. Chen is one of 11 lawyers trying to block the removal of the cross from the church, which is sanctioned by the government. Another lawyer representing the church, Wang Yu, was detained as part of a national crackdown on human rights lawyers last month.
“What kind of life is this honest and upright pastor Bao Guohua leading?” the city’s police said on their website. “With the deepening investigation of this case and Bao Guohua’s criminal gang, his carefully adorned garments are being stripped off layer by layer.”