Highest Roman Catholic Church official in China to step down

HONG KONG: Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the highest official of the Roman Catholic Church in China and a sharp critic of Beijing's record on democratic rights and religious freedoms, said this week that the Vatican had agreed to his request to step down next year as the head of the Diocese of Hong Kong, news agencies reported.

He said he would spend more time monitoring Catholic churches in mainland China, according to The Associated Press, which quoted him as saying: "I do not retire to rest. The mainland Chinese church is huge and complicated. Sometimes the pope wants me to give him some advice, so I need more time to research it."

Zen, who turns 77 next month, had twice before asked to be relieved of his diocesan duties. Pope Benedict XVI, he said Wednesday, approved his latest request to step down.

Zen, who was born in Shanghai and fled to Hong Kong after the Chinese civil war, has led the diocese since 2002. Bishop John Tong Hon, 69, who was born in Hong Kong, has been designated as his successor.

The Diocese of Hong Kong has an estimated 250,000 members. Macao, a former Portuguese colony and China's other semiautonomous territory, has the only other Roman Catholic diocese in China.

Mao created the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957 to control the church on the mainland. It now has an estimated seven million members. Several million more mainland Catholics worship in underground churches, according to religion scholars.


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