China has denied an allegation by the Vatican that it arrested a leading Catholic bishop last month. The government says the man was only attending classes about the country's official religion policies.
China's Religious and Ethical Affairs Bureau says that Bishop Zhao Zhendong willingly attended the classes, which the bureau organized to teach local clergy about religious policy. The bureau says the lessons started at the end of May and ended in mid-June.
A bureau official said Bishop Zhao was now back at work at his church in Hebei province.
A Vatican spokesman says the Holy See had no news of Mr. Zhao, the bishop of Xuanhua in northern Hebei, since he disappeared on May 27. The spokesman said that two other high-ranking clerics from Hebei province were also detained earlier this month, but were released after a few days.
The Vatican criticized the government's actions, saying the alleged detentions were a violation of religious freedom.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Zhang Qiyue, countered that the Vatican's accusations were groundless, and China would not punish people for believing in religion. Ms. Zhang added that everyone must abide by the law, and those who do not will be punished.
Beijing allows only government-sponsored churches to operate in the country and the Catholic Patriotic Association is the state-sanctioned Catholic organization.
Officials of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong refused to comment on the Zhao case and referred questions to Anthony Lam, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong.
Mr. Lam said Bishop Zhao is not a part of the Catholic Patriotic Association, but he does operate openly, unlike many "underground" churches and clergymen in China. Mr. Lam said that because Mr. Zhao has been practicing as a clergyman for more than 50 years, the government recognizes him as a priest, but not as a bishop.
The Vatican estimates that five million Catholics belong to the official Chinese church, while eight million give their allegiance to the Holy See. Mr. Lam explained why this is the case.
"Because for most Catholics, especially for the underground church, the Catholics will think that Patriotic Association is an organization trying to play a counter role to the Vatican," he said. "Anybody join[ing] the Patriotic Association, he is unfaithful to the Holy Father."
The American-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which keeps a watch over the underground Catholic Church in China, says the Chinese authorities often harass Catholics who are faithful to the Vatican, by destroying underground churches and arresting parishioners and priests.