ROME - Hong Kong's newly appointed cardinal said Tuesday that China's communist government needs to overcome "old prejudices" toward the Roman Catholic Church for the Vatican to make a breakthrough in forging relations with Beijing.
Bishop Joseph Zen said he was hopeful about the prospect, insisting that there was "no harsh reaction" from China to his appointment, even though the country warned in an official statement that he should avoid addressing politics. Zen, seen as an outspoken supporter of religious freedom, said he will continue speaking out on social issues.
"If the pope can do it for the whole world, I can do it for Hong Kong," he said in an interview with The Associated Press during a brief visit to Rome.
China cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the Chinese Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in government-controlled churches, although millions of Chinese Catholics belong to the so-called "underground church" loyal to Rome.
Problems of religious freedom "arise from old prejudices," the bishop said, calling it "possible" that China and the Vatican could resolve their differences in time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008.
"We know they have no reason to be afraid of religion," Zen said.
The main stumbling blocks have been the Vatican's recognition of Taiwan and China's demand to have a say in the appointment of bishops.
Vatican officials have suggested both hurdles can be overcome, and Zen said the Taiwanese are "psychologically preparing" for a change in their status with the Vatican. He did not give more specifics.
Since assuming the papacy in April, Pope Benedict XVI has attached particular importance to improving the Vatican's relationship with China.
Until relations are established, Zen indicated that a papal visit — long the hope of Benedict's predecessor John Paul II — was out of the question.
He confirmed that China blocked John Paul II from stopping in Hong Kong in 1999 for a meeting of Asian bishops. The meeting was held in New Delhi instead, and the pope visited.
Pope Paul VI made a three-hour stopover in Hong Kong in 1970, when it was a British colony.
Zen, a firm advocate of democracy and religious freedom, criticized the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government for chipping away at church control of Catholic schools, which he said have made the church in Hong Kong influential beyond its small numbers.
He denied being barred from visiting China, although he acknowledged being advised to visit only on invitation.
Zen, along with 14 other prelates named by Benedict, will receive their red hats as cardinals in a March 24 ceremony at the Vatican. The Hong Kong bishop also may learn his future career path.
He will turn 75 in January, the normal retirement age for bishops. Benedict could keep him on the job in Hong Kong, offer him a post in Rome or accept his retirement.
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