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Hong Kong Cardinal Hopeful of Thaw Between Church, China


China's response to a recent overture by the Vatican has been uncharacteristically quiet. Joseph Popiolkowski reports from Hong Kong that one top clergyman hopes this could help repair their frosty relationship.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, leader of Hong Kong's Catholic Diocese, says Beijing's response so far to a letter from Pope Benedict XVI to China's Catholics is "mild."

Last week, the Vatican issued the 55-page open letter to China's estimated 12 million Catholics. With a conciliatory tone, it acknowledged the half-century-old split between the government-sponsored "Patriotic Catholic Church" and the underground church that remains loyal to the Pope.

The pontiff says he hopes for better relations with Beijing, which has refused to officially comment on the letter. Zen says the lack of a negative response is a good sign.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, the 75-year-old Zen said the Catholic Church only wants to govern itself and not interfere in Chinese politics, which Beijing fears.

"The aim in all the efforts from the Holy See is religious freedom," he said. "There's no other purpose or secret agenda. It is nothing against China but we just want to achieve what the Church is enjoying in all parts of the world."

When communists took control of China in 1949, they set up a state-run church and drove Catholics loyal to the Vatican underground. Today, the Vatican and Chinese government each claim the right to appoint China's Catholic bishops. It is one of many issues preventing normalization of ties between them.

Zen made headlines Sunday when he marched for the first time in the annual July 1 pro-democracy parade coinciding with the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China. In previous years, he said his taking part in the parade would distract from its message.

Zen was publicly criticized for marching by China's state-run church. Liu Bainian, the deputy chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Assocation, said Zen's actions would not help to develop Sino-Vatican trust.

But Zen, who traditionally leads a prayer service before the parade, says his decision to march should have no influence on the state of China's relationship with the Vatican.

"I think every year I participated by speaking to the prayer service. Whether I join the parade or not, there's no difference," he said. "Others could easily use my participation as an excuse for not wanting China and the Vatican to establish a relationship. They could use my previous speeches against me as well because there's no difference between my speeches or marching in the parade."

Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy guarantees freedom of religion. As the territory's Vatican-appointed bishop, Zen often speaks out on matters affecting the church in China. Catholics in China's underground Church routinely face persecution from the government.

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