A bishop in China was ordained Friday without papal consent, raising tensions between Beijing and the Holy See.
Despite Vatican threats of excommunication, authorities in China continued with plans to install Father Joseph Yue Fusheng as bishop in Harbin in the northeastern Manchuria region.
Yue is one of three vice presidents of China's Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-controlled version of the Catholic church that is not recognized by the Vatican.
The Vatican had warned authorities in Beijing that the 'illegitimate' ordination could create terrible divisions among Catholics in China, where a large underground congregation that swears ultimate loyalty to the pope still thrives.
Sources told ANSA Friday that two underground priests, who had been jailed since Monday to prevent protests, were released immediately following the ceremony.
A strongly worded statement from the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on Tuesday stated that Chinese government authorities had been warned such an ordination would occur without the approval of Pope Benedict XVI.
It would also be opposed by local Catholics in Harbin, the Church said.
"Harbin's episcopal ordination has been programmed unilaterally and will provoke divisions, splits and tensions within the Catholic community in China," the statement said. Quoting at length from Pope Benedict's 2007 Letter to Chinese Catholics, the note reiterated that bishop appointments "are a religious, and not a political matter".
Two Vatican-approved bishops, Joseph Li Shan and Methodius Qu Ailin, were invited to the ceremony but declined for health reasons and sent letters of congratulations.
The state-backed church on Saturday intends to consecrate Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who has been approved by Rome, while some officiating at the ceremony have not.
Relations between the Vatican and China, an officially atheist state, have been frosty since Communist China forced its Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, and even more so in recent years.
In his Christmas Day message in 2010, the Pope rankled Chinese authorities when he said they continued to persecute and discriminate against Christians in the country.
Weeks earlier, Chinese authorities had forcibly deported Catholic bishops to Beijing for a gathering to elect new heads of the Patriotic Catholic Association and the Council of Chinese Bishops, which the pope considered incompatible with the Catholic faith.
Chinese bishops loyal to Rome had refused to take part in the Patriotic Assembly in the past, forcing authorities to put off the conclave for at least four years.
Ahead of the gathering, Catholic bishops from different provinces went into hiding or declared themselves too ill to attend in order to avoid being taken to Beijing to attend the convention against the Holy See's wishes.
Relations between the Vatican and China were also put under strain because of a row over the ordination of another bishop loyal to the government in 2010. The Vatican criticised the appointment as a serious breach of religious freedom and condemned Chinese authorities for forcing Vatican-approved bishops to attend the bishop's ordination ceremony.
The Holy See had warned that pressures on its Chinese bishops to attend the ceremony would set back previous reconciliation efforts between the two states.
Worship in China is only allowed in state-backed churches.
An estimated 12 to 14 million Chinese are Catholics, divided between the community loyal to Rome and those who accept the authority of the Chinese state.
Human rights organisations and the Church have repeatedly reported instances of Chinese Catholics becoming victims of harassment.