Beijing: The first Catholic bishop to be ordained in China for more than three years was consecrated on Tuesday amid a heavy police presence, worshippers said.
Joseph Zhang Yilin was installed as the official bishop of Anyang in the central province of Henan, as hundreds of police blocked access to the Sacred Heart of Jesus church. AFP was denied access to the ceremony.
The Chinese state does not recognise the Vatican`s authority over Catholics in the country -- estimates range from nine to 12 million. It oversees them with its own Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).
Even so, many believers pray at "underground" or "house" churches which seek to exist outside government control.
Beijing and the Holy See do not maintain formal diplomatic relations, and the right to select bishops is a key sticking point between them, but some priests are supported by both.
According to the Catholic press agency UCA News, Joseph Zhang Yilin had been approved by the Vatican long before the CPCA chose him for the post in April.
During rehearsals on Monday the 44-year-old, a short man with a lively demeanour, stood in the chancel flanked by parish priests and altar boys as the choir sang.
A man in civilian clothes brusquely told AFP to leave the premises.
The last ordination of a bishop in China ended in turmoil, when Shanghai`s newly installed Thaddeus Ma Daqin denounced the CPCA and was taken away. He has been under house arrest ever since the ceremony in 2012.
Three Chinese bishops were present at Anyang on Tuesday to ordain Joseph Zhang Yilin, all of them Vatican-approved according to UCA News. Had a non-Vatican-approved bishop been among them, it would have been seen as a provocation by Beijing.
Since taking office, Pope Francis has given new impetus to discussions that have been ongoing between Rome and Beijing since the 1980s. In December he ducked out of a meeting with the Dalai Lama, whom China reviles as a "splittist" seeking Tibet`s independence.
Around 100 priests attended Tuesday`s ceremony, worshippers said, including some Chinese who travelled from the US, Italy or France for the event.
Restrictions on civil and religious society have been stepped up since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power two years ago.
In Zhejiang province a campaign to remove crosses from both Protestant and Catholic churches has been running for more than a year, with some houses of worship demolished on the grounds that they violated building codes.