Pope Benedict XVI has elevated Hong Kong's outspoken bishop, Joseph Zen, to cardinal, in a move seen as signaling China's increasing importance for the Vatican.

Hong Kong's Bishop Joseph Zen says he is "happy" to hear the news that he is among the first group of cardinals chosen by Pope Benedict XVI.

Zen says other regions in the world could have had a cardinal selected, but this was not their turn, because he thinks the pope is more concerned about China. Zen says he is grateful for this concern.

The 74-year-old prelate has been an outspoken critic of the lack of religious freedom among China's Catholics - where only officially sanctioned churches are allowed to operate.

He has also criticized the Hong Kong and Beijing governments over the lack of full democracy in Hong Kong.

But the bishop, who was born in Shanghai, has supported the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican.

Those ties have been severed for more than 50 years, since the Communist Party took power on the mainland.

Beijing as a general rule will not establish relations with any government unless that government cuts any ties with Taiwan, and refrains from interfering with China's internal affairs - by agitating for religious freedom, among other things.

Vatican officials have said the Holy See is willing to cut its diplomatic ties with Taipei in order to establish relations with the mainland.

But Zen has also said the Vatican would only accept normalization with Beijing if religious freedoms on the mainland are guaranteed.

One major area of disagreement between the two is the issue of appointing Catholic bishops in China.

The Vatican traditionally insists that it has the sole right to do this. The communist government is wary of allowing its people to pledge allegiance to any foreign power, the Vatican included, and has insisted on appointing leaders of the officially sanctioned Patriotic Catholic Church.

Zen was ordained as a priest in 1961, and took over as bishop of Hong Kong in 2002.