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ZEN-LETTER Mar-1-2007 (500 words) xxxi

Cardinal says pope's letter to Chinese will be sent at Easter time

By Alicia Ambrosio
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS)-- Pope Benedict XVI's letter to Chinese Catholics will be released at Easter time and will encourage the faithful, clarify issues of doctrine and call for full religious freedom, said China's cardinal.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong told Catholic News Service in Rome March 1 that he has seen drafts of the pope's letter.

After a two-day meeting in January on the status of the Catholic community in mainland China, the Vatican had announced that the pope would be writing the letter.

"On issues regarding the divine position of the church and freedom of religion, the Holy Father will seek to clarify the truth," Cardinal Zen said.

The cardinal, a Salesian, was in Rome to give a speech and preside at a liturgy at the Pontifical Salesian University.

Cardinal Zen said that as a diplomatic courtesy Pope Benedict's letter will be translated into Chinese and will be sent to the government of China several days before it is released to the public.

The situation of Catholics in China today is still very confused, the cardinal said. There are reports of arrests and of underground bishops, who having come out into the open are forced to concelebrate Masses with government-approved bishops, he said.

After decades of harsh persecution of Catholics who maintained their ties to the Vatican and stringent efforts by the government to exclude Vatican influence over all areas of church life in the country, the communist government had appeared to be relaxing its stance.

In 2005 several bishops were ordained who were approved both by the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Vatican. However, in 2006 the patriotic association moved forward with the ordinations of three bishops without Vatican consent.

The Vatican issued statements after each of the ordinations expressing its disappointment that the patriotic association went ahead with the ceremonies. The statements also pointed out that canon law establishes penalties, including excommunication, for the bishops ordained and for those participating in the ordinations if they were acting of their own free will.

Cardinal Zen said that while priests certainly were pressured into participating in the ordinations it is unclear exactly how strong that pressure was. Some bishops have said the pressure was overwhelming, while others have disagreed on the extent of the pressure, the cardinal said.

"What we know for sure is that there was economic pressure," he said. The government threatened to take subsidies away from those who refused to participate in the government-approved ordinations, he noted.

The last parish that hosted a government-approved ordination was promised about $775,000, while one of the bishops ordained received nearly $26,000, he said.

"We can imagine other forms of pressure; for instance, the government might threaten to harm the family of a priest who refused to participate in an ordination," the cardinal said.

"Some pressure exists, but it is a pressure that a bishop should be able to accept and (still) stand firm," Cardinal Zen said.


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