(RNS) The Vatican expressed "astonishment and disappointment"Tuesday (Jan. 4) over a report that China will install newpro-government bishops on the day of Pope John Paul II's annualconsecration of Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops.

Beijing's move, reported by the Rome-based missionary news agencyMisna, appeared to throw cold water on the Vatican's hopes for arapprochement with China's Communist government.

"I must manifest the astonishment and disappointment of the Holy Seethat this decision comes at a moment when reports from many sides givegood hope for a normalization of relations between the Holy See andBeijing," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement.

"This gesture places obstacles that certainly hamper such aprocess," he said.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao refused toconfirm or deny the report, Reuters said.

"Religious matters are China's internal affair. We believe that nocountry, including the Vatican, can interfere in China's internalaffairs, including through religious means," Zhu told a news conference.

Misna said the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics wouldordain three newly elected bishops in the cities of Suzhou, Hangzhou andNanjing on Thursday (Jan. 6), which Roman Catholics celebrate as theFeast of the Epiphany. The Vatican already has named its own apostolicadministrators for its underground church in Suzhou and Nanjing.

The pope, who every year personally administers each of the church'sseven sacraments, reserves the Feast of the Epiphany to confer episcopalordination on bishops and archbishops he has appointed.

John Paul is scheduled to consecrate 12 bishops andarchbishops-elect from countries throughout the world during a Mass inSt. Peter's Basilica commemorating the visit of the Magi from the East,which signifies the manifestation of Jesus to the world. The Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with China since theCommunist government expelled its last apostolic nuncio, the pope'sambassador, in 1951. The government in 1957 established the patrioticCatholic church, which has no ties to the Vatican and was condemned byPope Pius XII. "The Chinese government, which is once again forcing its desire forabsolute control on Catholics, is certainly behind the ordinationdecision," Misna said. Beijing cites the Vatican's diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which itterms a renegade province, as the main impediment to renewed relations.It has pointedly ignored strong Vatican signals the Holy See would bewilling to change diplomatic partners. The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, toldreporters last year the Holy See was ready to move its apostolic nunciofrom Taipei to Beijing in the space of "only one day." The real problem, according to the Vatican, is China's reluctance togrant full religious liberty.

Chinese officials say the patriotic church has 4 million members.The Vatican believes at least an equal number of Catholics loyal to thepope continue to practice their religion underground.