HONG KONG, China (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday named an outspoken critic of China as cardinal at a time when the Vatican hopes to forge official ties with the communist country, where millions of Roman Catholics worship illegally.
Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen was once banned from mainland China for his vocal support of China's underground Catholics.
Benedict has made clear he wants to re-establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, and some analysts saw Zen's nomination as a way to make a China expert a close papal adviser. Observers also saw the appointment as an expression of Vatican dissatisfaction with China's religious policies.
"China should see this nomination of Monsignor Zen as an opportunity to revise their view on freedom of religion," said the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a China expert in Rome and founder of the Vatican-affiliated news agency AsiaNews.
Observers said, however, that making Zen a cardinal was unlikely to derail the push to establish ties between the Vatican and China.
"In private they won't happy," Beatrice Leung, who studies Sino-Vatican relations at Taiwan's Wenzao Ursuline College, said of Chinese authorities.
But the single appointment should not jeopardize the broader relationship between the Vatican and China, she said, unless Zen is promoted to a more influential position in the church.
Benedict named 15 cardinals Wednesday. (Full story)
Zen told reporters his elevation signals the pope's focus on China.
"The pope really cares about China. He didn't name a lot of cardinals this time. A lot of dioceses that typically get appointments didn't. This shows his priority for China," Zen said.
He added that it was not immediately clear whether the pope wants him to remain in Hong Kong or serve in the Holy See.
Leung said the appointment is a practical move by the church ahead of a possible resumption of ties.
"Among all the cardinals, who understands China issues with more depth than he does?" she said. "If China and the Vatican resume ties soon, the Chinese church has many problems to tackle."
One area of contention between Beijing and Vatican is the pope's authority to appoint bishops, which China views as interference in its internal affairs.
China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in government-controlled churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops.
Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome. Those who meet in the underground churches are frequently harassed, fined and sometimes sent to labor camps.
Analysts said China is unlikely to react strongly -- at least in public -- to Zen's selection for fear of alienating Catholics in Hong Kong, where the Roman Catholic Church is allowed to operate. The former British colony enjoys civil liberties denied on the mainland.
"If Beijing reacts too strongly, it will lose popularity in Hong Kong," said China scholar James Sung, who teaches at the City University of Hong Kong.
Vatican expert John L. Allen Jr. said views on Zen in the Vatican were mixed.
"Some in the Vatican like Zen very much for his willingness to stand up to the Chinese on religious freedom issues, others worry that he will disrupt Vatican diplomatic efforts to establish formal relations with Beijing," said Allen, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter.
The Hong Kong office of China's Foreign Ministry did not immediately return a reporter's call seeking comment.
Born in Shanghai in 1932, Zen was ordained as a priest in 1961. He became Hong Kong's bishop in 2002.
He taught in mainland Chinese seminaries between 1989 and 1996 but later was banned from the mainland. That ban apparently was lifted when Zen visited in 2004 at the invitation of mainland officials.
Zen will be the second living ethnic Chinese cardinal. The other is Paul Shan Kuo-hsi of Taiwan.
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