April 15, 2009 / 8:12 PM / 8 years ago

Pope Benedict names new Hong Kong bishop

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<p>Pope Benedict waves during his Regina Coeli prayer from his summer residence in Castelgandolfo during Easter Monday April 13, 2009.Tony Gentile</p>

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict appointed John Tong Hon as the new bishop of Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Church after his predecessor in the high-profile post retired, the Vatican said Wednesday.

In a statement, it said the pope had formally agreed to the retirement for reasons of age of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, whose outspoken views on democratic and religious freedoms had drawn criticism from Beijing.

According to newspaper reports, Tong has hinted that he would take a more flexible approach than his predecessor and seek to bridge Vatican and China ties. He is also expected to become a cardinal sometime in the future.

Tong had been named Hong Kong's associate bishop last year, paving the way for him to succeed Zen, 77, who had long asked to retire.

China's 8 to 12 million Catholics are split between a state-sanctioned church and an underground church that rejects government ties and answers only to the pope.

Beijing and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations, giving Catholic leaders in Hong Kong, a former British colony and now a "special administrative region" of China with wide-ranging autonomy, an important liaison role.

Benedict has made improving relations with China a main goal of his pontificate. China says that before restoring ties, broken off two years after the Communist takeover of 1949, the Vatican must sever relations with Taiwan.

Reporting by Silvia Aloisi

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