The new head of the Hong Kong Catholic Church on Wednesday said it was willing to act as a “bridge” between Chinese authorities and the Vatican.
There are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, but the Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with Beijing since 1951, two years after the founding of the communist People’s Republic.
Hong Kong’s outgoing church leader, Cardinal John Tong, was widely seen to have sought better relations with China particularly in connection with the decades-long dispute over who in the Communist country has the authority to appoint bishops.
But moves towards a rapprochement have led to unease among some Catholics who fear that a deal with Beijing may compromise the church.
Bishop Michael Yeung replaced Tong Wednesday.
“We are willing to be a bridge, and I always think that building bridges is much more important than building fences,” Yeung told reporters when asked if he would follow in Tong’s footsteps in his approach to China.
“If there is any way we can help to maintain a dialogue, we will be willing to do so,” the 71-year-old said.
Beijing is suspicious of religion and the country’s “official” Catholic church is run by the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association — but there is also an “underground” church which swears allegiance only to the pope.
State-sanctioned bishops in China are chosen by the association, while the Vatican insists on its right to appoint all the Catholic church’s bishops.
In a pastoral letter in August last year, Tong said central authorities were willing to reach an “understanding” over the appointment of bishops in the country and to seek a mutually acceptable plan.
However, tensions still surround the issue and China’s approach to the church.
The Vatican in June expressed “grave concern” for one of its bishops in China, saying he was being held in an unknown location after being “forcibly removed” from his diocese in Wenzhou in southeastern China.
Despite his willingness to facilitate dialogue with China, Yeung said he also supported democratic reform for semi-autonomous Hong Kong, as did Tong and his predecessor Cardinal Joseph Zen, who became a prominent pro-democracy advocate.
A proposed package to introduce a public vote for city leader was voted down in parliament in 2015 after massive street rallies because Beijing said it would vet candidates.
Since then the political reform debate has stalled.
“I hope that the gates can be re-opened,” Yeung said.
But Yeung has also courted controversy after comparing homosexuality to drug abuse.
He attempted to clarify his views Wednesday.
“Maybe your son was a drug addict, but you love him still. Maybe you don’t accept this kind of behaviour but you still love him,” he told reporters.