05/04/2006, 00.00
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Relations between China and the Holy See within five years, says Mgr Li Duan

The bishop of Xian says he is hopeful that diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican will be re-established. What counts is the reunification of the Church in China and the Pope knows it—for this reason he has invited official and underground bishops to the Synod on the Eucharist, he says.

Xian (AsiaNews/SCMP) – Prominent mainland Catholic leader Bishop Anthony Li Duan of Xian remains optimistic that Sino-Vatican relations can be established in three to five years.

Bishop Li, who is battling terminal liver cancer, said the links were a wish among all Catholics in China.

"There are difficulties, but it is possible to establish ties. It will not be long. It may not [take place] in one or two years, but not more than three to five years," he said. "We are hopeful of rebuilding ties in 2008, as expected by [Hong Kong's] Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.

"I wish that we all pray to God to make establishing Sino-Vatican diplomatic ties a reality. I wish I could see it in my lifetime.

"I know [Pope Benedict] is very caring to the mainland church. My greatest wish is to have him come to China."

Bishop Li's comments came amid the appointment of Bishop Ma Yinglin in Kunming on Saturday and Bishop Liu Xinhong in Wuhu yesterday, without the approval of the Vatican. Asked whether the appointment of Bishop Ma would affect relations between the mainland and the Vatican - diplomatic ties were severed in 1951 - Bishop Li said he remained optimistic.

"It is unclear whether it will affect [building ties] or how large its impact is. But I'm still optimistic because both sides are willing to establish ties. But the first step is to make compromises," said Bishop Li, who turns 80 next month. "[Bishop Ma] is a nice person." Bishop Li did not detail the obstacles to ties but admitted the appointment of bishops remained a problem.

"We wish both the government and the Vatican could agree on the candidates. It would make things a lot easier. Without government approval, it will not be easy to work," he said.

Asked whether establishing ties would mean double allegiance for Catholics, Bishop Li said the government and the Vatican had their own "spheres" - the same as in other countries building diplomatic ties - and it would not be a problem.

"Now it is not easy for us to contact the Vatican. After rebuilding diplomatic ties, we will have a more normalised relationship," he said.

Bishop Li, a native of Lintong county in Shaanxi, graduated from a seminary in the Xian diocese in 1950 and became a priest the next year. He is known for his loyalty to the Vatican. He has avoided provoking the government while staunchly defending the interests of the church against outside pressure, moves which have gained him wide support from both the official and the underground church.

Despite detention in labour camps in Shaanxi from 1954 to 1957, 1960 to 1963, and 1966 to December 1979, he has never given up his faith and has served as the bishop of Xian since 1987, leading the diocese's 20,000 Catholics. In January 2000 he did not attend Beijing's consecration of five bishops who did not have Holy See approval.

Bishop Li again denied being the mainland cardinal appointed by the late pope John Paul but whose name was never revealed.

Last year the Vatican invited four mainland underground and official bishops, including Bishop Li, to the October synod in Rome but Beijing blocked their travel.

"We knew the time was not ripe and we probably couldn't go. But the invitation meant that the Vatican wanted the underground and the official church to unify," Bishop Li said. "In fact, the key to unification is for both of us to recognise the Pope. It did not matter that we couldn't go - in fact, I couldn't physically - but the invitation hastened the unification."

Now fighting cancer, which was diagnosed in January 2004, the bishop has left most of the church operations to Xian coadjutor Bishop Dang Mingyan , 38. "Of course this pain is not easy to bear. But it also helps us to be more patient. What God says is right: the flesh is weak but the spirit is strong," Bishop Li said.

He has been confined indoors by chronic pain since being discharged from the Shaanxi Provincial Cancer Hospital in January and is cared for by his niece, a nun, during the day and by a priest at night.

Although physically weak, his mind is sharp. He is very concerned about the church and keeps himself up to date with the latest news from Rome, including reading the official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano with his self-taught Italian whenever he can.

He welcomed Cardinal Zen's elevation, saying he hoped the cardinal would help improve Sino-Vatican ties. "To have a Chinese elevated as a cardinal is a good thing," he said.

A respected prelate, Bishop Li dismissed his role as a defender of religious freedom. "I'm just doing what I can do in accordance with my conscience," he said.

Bishop Li, who has lost about 18kg in the past two years and now weighs only 55kg, said he was prepared for death. He has chosen the wood for his coffin and the burial ground in a rural church about 50km from Xian.

"After it was diagnosed, I knew I would be going 'home' and greeting God very soon. Now it's the third year [after the diagnosis]. This illness is terminal. It is not curable unless there is a miracle. Whether curable or not, I still welcome [God's wishes]."

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