BEIJING China detained three "underground" Catholic priests unwilling to serve a state-controlled body, a U.S. group has reported, as Beijing and the Vatican press their claims on religious controls.
The three men were caught by police in north China's Inner Mongolia region, having fled there from neighboring Hebei province, the Cardinal Kung Foundation said in a statement emailed late on Saturday.
The detentions came as the Vatican and Beijing test their boundaries of authority following a letter on China's Catholics from Pope Benedict.
China's 12 million Catholics share the same basic religious beliefs but are politically divided between "above-ground" churches approved by the ruling Communist Party and "underground" churches that reject government ties.
On June 30, Pope Benedict issued a letter that urged reconciliation between the two sides. But he said the church must have the power to run its own affairs, including appointing bishops, possibly with government consultation.
The Chinese government has often rejected such claims as interference in "domestic affairs" but has given no detailed public response to the letter.
Parts of Hebei, the priests' home province, are a stronghold of "underground" churches.
The Cardinal Kung Foundation said the three had refused to join the Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-controlled body that seeks to control church affairs.
Plain clothes police detained the priests -- Liang Aijun, Wang Zhong and Gao Jinbao -- on July 24 and they have been transferred to an unknown location, the Foundation said.
"They'd been hiding for quite a while when they were hunted down," the head of the Foundation, Joseph Kung, told Reuters by phone.
Kung said he did not know if the men have been charged. Another underground priest, Cui Tai, had been detained in Hebei following a minor motorbike accident, he said.
Sometimes "underground" clergy are released after days or weeks; sometimes they are held for much longer.
The Vatican is waiting to see how China handles the appointment of a new bishop for Beijing, the country's most prominent diocese.
Rome has said a nominee proposed by the state-registered diocese, Father Li Shan, could be acceptable and has urged him to seek papal approval.
But an editorial in a Beijing newspaper on Friday said China rejects the Vatican's demand that it stop appointing bishops without papal approval.
These days, most state-approved bishops have also won Vatican blessing. The Vatican has not had diplomatic ties with Beijing since 1951 and instead recognizes Taiwan, the self-ruled island that China regards as an illegitimate breakaway.