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

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

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

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

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

"Religious matters are China's internal affair. We believe that no country, including the Vatican, can interfere in China's internal affairs, including through religious means," Zhu told a news conference.

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

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

John Paul is scheduled to consecrate 12 bishops and archbishops-elect from countries throughout the world during a Mass in St. 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 the Communist government expelled its last apostolic nuncio, the pope's ambassador, in 1951. The government in 1957 established the patriotic Catholic church, which has no ties to the Vatican and was condemned by Pope Pius XII. "The Chinese government, which is once again forcing its desire for absolute control on Catholics, is certainly behind the ordination decision," Misna said. Beijing cites the Vatican's diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which it terms a renegade province, as the main impediment to renewed relations. It has pointedly ignored strong Vatican signals the Holy See would be willing to change diplomatic partners. The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, told reporters last year the Holy See was ready to move its apostolic nuncio from Taipei to Beijing in the space of "only one day." The real problem, according to the Vatican, is China's reluctance to grant 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 the pope continue to practice their religion underground.

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