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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In recent years, there's been increasing speculation that the Vatican is preparing to establish diplomatic relations with China. As evidence, experts point to reconciliation between China's official Catholic Church, which is approved by Beijing, and an underground Roman Catholic Church loyal to the Pope.

The Vatican has offered to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China, but there are other issues to resolve before that can happen. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, China's 12 million Catholics are still often caught between the church and the state.

(Soundbite of chanting)

ANTHONY KUHN, reporting:

At the Hengshui diocesan church in North China's Hebei province, Bishop Peter Feng presides over a Sunday mass. He wears a glittering purple robe. Behind him pictures of Jesus and Mary are outlined in colorful lights. Nuns from the next-door convent, Our Mother of Good Counsel, are at the keyboards.

(Soundbite of singing)

KUHN: An Austrian Jesuit missionary became the first bishop of Hengshui in 1947. Two years later, the Communist party came to power. It never established diplomatic ties with the Vatican, and it expelled foreign missionaries in the 1950s. Over the next two decades of Maoist political mayhem, churches in Hengshui were destroyed and bishops were imprisoned.

Peter Feng studied theology in Beijing, the Philippines and Belgium. He was auxiliary bishop in 2002 when the main bishop was incapacitated by a stroke. He recalls how local church members met to choose a replacement.

Bishop Peter Feng (Hengshui diocesan church, China): (Through translator) We picked three candidates and submitted the results to the Holy See. We also gave them to the official church in Beijing. My case was special because Rome approved my ordination before Beijing, and this delayed the matter.

KUHN: After two years, Beijing finally approved Feng's ordination. Priests and laity gathered for a mass to celebrate the event, and to read an edict from the Pope confirming Feng's new post. But official priests from Beijing warned Feng not to read it.

The clerics argued for eight hours as congregation members nervously prayed with their rosaries in the churchyard. As a compromise, Feng says, the official priests ducked out as the edict was read in church, and the mass was held later at the county government office.

Bishop FENG: (Through translator) It was difficult for me. As a bishop who was about to be ordained, I had to consider serving my congregation. But I also knew I would need the government's cooperation in the future. I felt stuck in the middle.

KUHN: To reassure his congregation, Feng displays a photo in his office of his meeting with Pope John Paul II. Outside the church, congregation member Zhang Yanhua says that it's important to her that her bishop is recognized by the Pope.

Ms. ZHANG YANHUA (Hengshui church member): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: In our church, she says, the bishops obey the Pope, the priests obey the bishops, and we congregation members obey the priests. As in Feng's case, the Vatican also now recognizes most of the bishops recognized by Beijing. But neither side claims to be cooperating with the other. Liu Bainian is vice head of the government-sanctioned church, or Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

Mr. LIU BAINIAN (Vice head, Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association): (Through translator) Rome has now changed its old ways and recognized some of the bishops we have elected. This is a good sign. But because China and the Vatican have no diplomatic relations, there can be no tacit agreement on the issue of bishops.

KUHN: In its bid to unify China's Catholic Church, the Vatican has also stopped replacing aging underground bishops in key dioceses. Underground bishops are now in the minority, and many of them are under some form of arrest.

Anthony Lam is a researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center, a Hong Kong Catholic group. He says no current leader in the Chinese government has the political clout to decide to establish ties with Rome.

Mr. ANTHONY LAM (Researcher, Holy Spirit Study Center): You know you have to wait for a very strong person, a powerful person who has no challenge from anybody in China. Then you can make the final decision, because the relationship with the Vatican is not only political but also ideological.

KUHN: The notion of the Catholic Church as an agent of Western imperialism is one piece of ideological baggage that Chinese officials are slow to abandon.

(Soundbite of congregation singing)

KUHN: Despite these frictions, the Hengshui diocese is thriving. Every Easter, Bishop Feng and his priests baptize hundreds of new converts. They've established community chapels, medical clinics, and summer schools. All while learning how to render unto Chairman Mao that which is Chairman Mao's. Anthony Kuhn, NPR news, Beijing.

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