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5/13/2011 China (Forbes) – Reports say Chinese Catholics have voted under heavy security for a new government-approved bishop while underground Protestant leaders issued a bold letter in support of a fellow congregation.

The developments illustrate growing tensions between the communist authorities and increasingly assertive Christian groups whose memberships are growing rapidly., a news service with close ties to the church in Asia, said security officers accompanied priests and packed the election venue where 66 of 72 votes were cast on Wednesday for Huang Bingzhang, 43, as the new bishop of Shantou.

Calls to the local religious affairs bureau rang unanswered on Friday.

Huang, the only candidate, is a member of China’s national parliament and head of the government-controlled Guangdong provincial Catholic Patriotic Association.

The Vatican-appointed bishop of Shantou, 81-year-old Zhuang Jianjian, has never been recognized by China and has been under house arrest since before Easter over a month ago, reported, citing their own reporter in Shantou. Religious authorities had sought to appoint Huang for several years, but had been thwarted by opposition from local Catholics, it said. The website is run by the Union of Catholic Asian News, based in Bangkok.

China and the Vatican have no formal relations and even informal contacts have been testy of late. That is largely due to Beijing’s insistence on the right to assign bishops by carefully orchestrated elections in defiance of the pope’s sole authority to make such appointments.

An accommodation whereby most new bishops received tacit approval from the Vatican appeared to break down last year. Chinese officials responded to criticism by accusing Rome of seeking to undermine the independence of the Chinese church and interfering in the rights of Chinese Catholics to practice their faith.

China officially records about 6 million Catholics worshipping in 6,300 congregations across the country, although millions more are believed to worship outside the official church. China says almost half of the country’s 97 dioceses lack bishops and that it intends to move quickly to fill them – with or without Vatican approval.

In a further sign of that determination, Li Zhigang – a priest with close government ties – was elected bishop of the southwestern diocese of Chengdu on Tuesday, the report said.

In Beijing, meanwhile, underground church leaders issued a petition to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber stamp legislature, calling for an end to persecution of the Shouwang Church and its 1,000 members who have been denied access to their worship space.

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