(Reuters) - China ordained a third bishop without the Pope's approval on Thursday, the honorary president of the state-backed church said, in a move likely to further strain tense relations between the Chinese government and the Vatican.
China's state-sanctioned Catholic church ordained Joseph Huang Bingzhang as bishop in Shantou city in southern Guangdong province on Thursday morning, the honorary president of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian, said, citing sources with direct knowledge.
Two other sources, who declined to be identified, told Reuters that Huang's ordination was a public ceremony attended by about 1,000 people.
Eight bishops loyal to the Holy See participated in the ceremony, a source close to the Vatican told Reuters, citing six sources who had direct knowledge of the situation. He declined to be named, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
"All 8 bishops were requested by civil authorities to go and ordain the new illicit bishop," said the source. "All of them were accompanied by the police to the place of the event. The majority of the bishops refused and resisted to go."
Calls made to Huang's church in Shantou went unanswered.
The ordination is the latest in a long-running dispute between the Vatican and Beijing over the status of China's state-backed Church, which has disregarded injunctions not to name bishops without papal authorization.
China's 8 to 12 million Catholics are divided between the state-sanctioned church that names bishops without the Vatican's approval and an underground church wary of government ties.
The source close to the Vatican said that the Holy See believes China has plans to consecrate more bishops, a move that could further damage a relationship that is "deteriorating."
"With this insistence to ordain them, we have to react," he said.
Huang could be excommunicated for his role in the ceremony, as the Vatican had told him ahead of time that it was not approved, the source said.
He added that Paul Lei Shiyin, who was named as bishop of the city of Leshan on June 29, has been excommunicated after the Vatican condemned the ordination that took place in late June without papal authorization, saying it was an illegitimate act that damaged the unity of the Church.
Last November, the pope's office issued a similar condemnation following the ordination of Joseph Guo Jincai, a member of the state-backed church in Chengde in north China.
The source close to the Vatican said four other bishops, who were unwilling to attend the ordination, were held for days and placed under surveillance in separate places.
Beijing and the Vatican broke formal diplomatic relations shortly after the Chinese Communists took power in 1949. They differ over who has the authority to appoint bishops but had previously been engaging in a secretive and cautious exploration of normalizing of ties.
The Vatican has previously condemned what it called "external pressures and constrictions" on Catholics in China.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Editing by Ben Blanchard and Sanjeev Miglani)