GUANGZHOU, China China's state-backed Catholic church installed a Vatican-approved bishop in the southern diocese of Guangzhou on Tuesday, just days after another was consecrated in the central province of Hubei.
The promotions of Gan Junqiu in Guangzhou and Lu Shouwang in Yichang signaled an improvement in relations between Beijing and Rome after ties were strained last year by China's unilateral promotion of three bishops without papal approval.
China's 8 to 12 million Catholics are split between a state-sanctioned church and an underground church that rejects government ties and answers only to Rome. Beijing and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations.
Gan's ceremony was closed to the media and all but a few hundred Catholics, but others watched a live TV broadcast nearby.
The state-backed church welcomed the Vatican's approval, but Lu Guocun, vice chairman of the Catholic Patriotic Association, emphasized that Gan was China's choice.
"If they approve the bishops that we select, this is a good development ... We don't oppose their approval, but this bishop was picked by us last year in October," Lu told reporters after the two-and-a-half-hour ceremony. He estimated the Vatican approved of over 80 percent of Chinese bishops.
"We hope China and the Vatican establish relations at an early date. When we hold Mass every day, we pray for this."
But although the officially atheist Communist government and the Vatican may have agreed on the latest consecrations, Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong cautioned against reading too much into them.
"Of course, it's a good thing that both sides (approved), especially (that) the religious affairs bureau in China is not pushing its candidates too hard," he said.
"In general, though, I cannot associate it with any development, or new change in religious policy."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China was willing to find ways to improve relations with the Vatican.
"We also hope that the Vatican side can proceed from the overall situation of Sino-Vatican relations and fully consider the history and reality of the Chinese Catholic church," which he said had made efforts to "promote the spread of the gospel".
Lu Shouwang was consecrated on Friday in the town of Yichang, in Hubei province, the State Administration of Religious Affairs said on its Web site, www.sara.gov.cn.
Gan and Lu were classmates at a seminary in the central city of Wuhan in the 1980s and represent a "new generation" of Catholic priests in China. However, Lam, of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, said that did not mean they were more liberal.
(Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck; Writing by John Ruwitch; editing by Nick Macfie and Roger Crabb)