BEIJING (REUTERS) - China is preparing to ordain a second bishop with the Pope's approval, the spokesman for a Catholic diocese said on Tuesday, a possible sign of easing relations between the Chinese government and the Vatican.
The possible ordination in central Henan province of Cosmos Ji Chengyi as bishop of Zhumadian and last week's consecration of Joseph Zhang Yinlin as coadjutor bishop of Anyang follow a strained period between Beijing and Rome since 2011, when the Communist body that governs the church appointed bishops without Vatican approval.
China's 8-12 million Catholics are divided into two communities - an official church run by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association answerable to the Communist Party, and an underground church that swears allegiance only to the Pope.
Zhang was ordained last week as China's first Catholic bishop in more than three years, said Li Jianlin, a priest and spokesman for Henan diocese.
He said both Zhang and Ji had approval from Rome, though there was no timetable set for Ji's ordination as the church was undergoing "a lot of preparatory work".
"Catholics are thrilled because this is the first time since the founding of Henan province that there has been an ordination ceremony recognised by both sides," Li said, referring to the approval given by both Beijing and the Vatican to Zhang's consecration.
Li said the diocese was renovating a church to prepare for Ji's ordination.
China's Foreign Ministry and the State Administration for Religious Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The upcoming and previous ordinations were "good signs that the Chinese government is more open", said Anthony Lam, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, an organ of the Diocese of Hong Kong.
China has not ordained any bishops since Thaddeus Ma Daqin publicly quit the state-sanctioned Catholic Church during his ordination as auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in 2012.
The Vatican, which has had no formal diplomatic ties to Beijing since shortly after the Communist Party took power in 1949, has been trying to improve relations with China.
The main point of contention between Beijing and the Vatican is which side should have the final say in the appointment of bishops. Another stumbling block is the Holy See's recognition of self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
Meanwhile, Christians in the eastern province of Zhejiang say authorities have been taking down crosses on churches since last year, creating tension between officials and congregations.