Thousands of Catholics in China gather in Shanghai to honour Virgin Mary

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Thousands of Chinese Catholics gathered in Shanghai on Friday for a celebration to honour the Virgin Mary, in a show of religious fervour permitted by the Communist-ruled state.

China exercises strict control over religion, requiring followers to worship in state-approved churches.

In an annual tradition dating back more than a hundred years, pilgrims walked up Sheshan - or She Mountain - the site of two churches and the seminary for Shanghai's Catholic Diocese in the city's southwest.

One man carried a wooden cross grasped in both hands in front of him while others knelt on the ground, crossing themselves and chanting prayers, before a statue of the Virgin Mary.

"Today Catholics throughout the world are praying for the Church of China," a nun told AFP.

"We gathered here to honour this important date, and pray for Mary, for God, for our faith, for the Chinese people and eternal love," she said.

Pope Francis on Friday tweeted a prayer for Catholics in China on what is known as the feast day of the Virgin of Sheshan and celebrated mass before a group of Chinese Catholics in the Vatican.

Earlier this week ahead of the celebration, Pope Francis called on Chinese Catholics to affirm their loyalty to him, and prayed that they be allowed to live in accordance with their faith.

China and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951 after Rome recognised the Nationalist government in Taiwan, a rival to the Communist regime.

Although Beijing and the Vatican have improved relations in recent years as the Chinese Catholic population has grown, they remain at odds over which side has the authority to ordain priests.

The long-serving bishop of Shanghai's state-run Catholic church, Aloysius Jin Luxian, died last month, raising questions over who will succeed him.

His intended successor was Thaddeus Ma Daqin, but he was stripped of his title of auxiliary bishop last year after he dramatically split with official religious authorities.