A diocese in central China has ordained the country's first Catholic bishop in three years amid tensions between Beijing and the Vatican and a strained relationship between the Chinese leadership and the Christian religion in general.
The Rev. Joseph Zhang Yinlin was named coadjutor bishop of Anyang in Henan province in a rare recent case of Chinese officials being in alignment with the Roman Catholic leadership in a choice for the position, according to the diocese and Catholic websites based abroad.
Relations between the church and China remain rocky, however, and President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping earlier this year repeated warnings about the dangers of foreign influence over religion in China.
A continuing campaign to remove exterior crosses and demolish unauthorized churches — both Catholic and Protestant — in Zhejiang province in recent weeks has prompted an unprecedented public protest by the officially sanctioned bishop of Wenzhou and 26 priests.
The overseas websites AsiaNews and Ucanews said that Tuesday's ordination took part with the Vatican's approval, possibly indicating a return to the formula under which Chinese authorities, who claim the sole right to appoint bishops, name candidates that are then tacitly accepted by the Vatican.
That unspoken arrangement seemed to have broken down amid worsening relations following the 2012 ordination of Shanghai Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the last bishop to be installed prior to Zhang.
The ordination also marked the first appointment of a new Chinese bishop under Pope Francis, who has made a point of conveying messages of friendship to China and the nation's leaders.
The Henan Catholic church's official website said 75 priests, 120 nuns and more than 1,500 faithful attended Zhang's ordination at Anyang's Sacred Heart Cathedral. It said officials from the official Catholic Patriotic Association and the central government's United Front Department and Religious Affairs Bureau also attended.
It quoted Zhang as saying he would respect China's constitution and work to "maintain national unification and social stability and unity in order to contribute to the building of a moderately prosperous society," echoing standard Communist Party slogans.
A diocese secretary on Wednesday confirmed the ordination but offered no details.
Three other bishops taking part in the ceremony were also government-appointed and Vatican-approved, according to the overseas websites.
Zhang, 43, is a representative of a younger generation of priests seeking to walk a middle path between their loyalty to the Vatican and the party's overweening desire to control all social and religious institutions. According to his official biography, he graduated from seminary in 1996, and became a priest in 2004.
Hundreds of police and security agents surrounded the church and checked the identities of those attending to weed out anyone not on their list, the overseas websites said. They said an overflow crowd of about 500 watched the ceremony via a videolink.
While setting a positive tone, Tuesday's "calm" ordination was more a factor of the Anyang diocese's good government relations than of any significant shift in relations between the Vatican and Beijing, wrote Bernardo Cervellera, AsiaNews' editor.
"It would be too much to attribute the ceremony's smoothness to some signals between China and the Vatican or to a lessening of tensions or better relations," Cervellera wrote.
Ma, the Shanghai bishop, has not been seen in public since his ordination, during which he renounced membership in the Communist Party-run Catholic association, shocking and angering officials. Despite official condemnation, the Chinese church continues to recognize him as Shanghai bishop, and he is believed to be sequestered at the city's Sheshan seminary.
Officially atheistic China demanded Catholics sever their links with the Vatican in 1951, shortly before it closed churches and imprisoned priests, some for decades.
Beijing now allows Christians to worship openly, but insists that the party-controlled Catholic association has the authority to appoint bishops rather than the Holy See.
China has an estimated 12 million Catholics, many of whom worship outside the official Patriotic Association.