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China insists on control of religion, dimming hope of imminent Vatican deal

[BEIJING] China will not allow any foreign interference in religious affairs in the country, a senior official said Tuesday, dousing expectations of an imminent deal with the Vatican over control of the Roman Catholic Church here.

"I think there is no religion in human society that is above the state," the official, Chen Zongrong, said during a briefing on religious affairs in China, underscoring the government's intention to maintain strict control over all religious organizations and their believers.

Mr Chen's remarks came amid reports that the Vatican was prepared to make concessions to Beijing in the appointment of the church's bishops - including by asking two "underground" bishops to step aside - in exchange for retaining some influence over those who are chosen in the future.

Pope Francis has sent officials to Beijing to negotiate an agreement, but a Vatican spokesman last week disputed reports that one was imminent.

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One of the Vatican-ordained bishops at the center of the proposed deal, Guo Xijin, was detained by authorities last week before Easter and forced to leave his parish in Fujian province, though he was allowed to return in time for the holiday.

Mr Chen denied that Bishop Guo had been detained, saying that a Beijing-appointed bishop in a neighboring region, Xiamen, had simply invited him to visit during Holy Week. "So to say that his freedom is limited is not consistent with the facts," he said.

China allows Catholic churches to function here - one of which, St. Joseph's Wangfujing Church, or Dongtang Cathedral, in Beijing, was overflowing on Easter Sunday - but the Vatican does not recognize the seven bishops who have been appointed by the authorities. Instead it has secretly named leaders such as Bishop Guo to oversee "underground" followers.

Mr Chen, introducing a government white paper on religious rights and practices, said that as a matter of policy there were "no underground churches or house churches" in China.

According to the white paper, China has 200 million believers among the five major religions, which it counts as Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. Catholics account for 6 million of them, the paper said, though that does not include those in the "underground" church. By other estimates, the number of Catholics exceeds 12 million.