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The hardline Communist bureaucrat who led China’s roughshod campaign against Tibet’s Buddhist dissidents has been given a new target: to destroy China’s “underground” Catholics.

Zhang Qingli, known as the “Tibetan bulldog,” has been appointed as the Communist Party Secretary of Hebei province, according to Clifford Coonan for the British daily newspaper the Independent.

Zhang’s assignment is to break Chinese Catholics who refuse to sever ties to Catholics worldwide.

The Chinese government brags that it permits freedom of religion — while downplaying that such freedom is only allowed in state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association churches whose clergy are selected and paid by the Chinese government. They preach state-approved homilies that reflect Communist Party politics. Children are barred from services or instruction.

The Vatican has threatened excommunication of any priest who serves in such churches — as well as anyone who accepts appointment as a bishop.

Chinese Catholics are required by law to join the Patriotic Association church, which has five million members. At least twice that number of Chinese Catholics refuse — instead supporting financially Vatican-approved priests who celebrate mass and teach children in illegal “house churches.”

Millions of such “underground” Catholics worship in such churches in the Hebei area, which surrounds Beijing and has a population of 70 million.

Relations between Beijing and the Vatican nosedived last year after Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas Day message deplored the persecution of Chinese Catholics.

Coonan reports:

Last month, the Vatican denounced the ordination of a Chinese bishop without papal approval and excommunicated him. Much to Beijing’s irritation, the Vatican is one of a handful of states that extends diplomatic recognition to the self-ruled island of Taiwan.

The US-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, which highlights the cases of oppressed priests in China, says there are 25 underground bishops, and all of them are either in jail, under house arrest, under strict surveillance, or in hiding.

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