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China prevents Pope from visiting Hong Kong

CHINA HAS barred Pope John Paul II from visiting Hong Kong during his Asian tour later this year because of the Vatican's diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen said yesterday that China "says the Vatican has ties with Taiwan and no ties with us. Therefore, such a visit is not convenient."

Hong Kong's government, caught between its masters in Peking and the emotions of some 250,000 Chinese Catholics in the former British colony, said the visit would have to wait.

"It would only be appropriate to discuss the proposed visit after the Central People's Government (in Peking) and the Vatican have resolved the relevant issues," a government spokesman said. The Vatican's diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which Peking has viewed as a renegade province since winning a civil war in 1949, were clearly at the top of the list of relevant issues.

This was China's latest example of flexing its muscles on foreign and defence issues concerning Hong Kong, and further defining the limits to the territory's autonomy since British rule ended in July 1997. Tensions between Peking and Taiwan have risen sharply since July, with China warning Taiwan not to move towards independence.

The United States has sent envoys to both sides to try to calm the feud.

The Pope wanted his Asia tour to include Hong Kong, and the Vatican approached Peking via the Chinese embassy in Rome. It would have been the first visit by a Pope since a stopover by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

Hong Kong's pro-democracy politicians said Peking's refusal was a shift from Britain's pre-handover policies and set further limits to Hong Kong's autonomy under Chinese rule. "What the administration of [chief executive] C H Tung has tried to impress on people is that things have not changed very much [since the handover]," said Emily Lau, a legislator and the leader of the pro-democracy Frontier Party.

"Catholics and others would like to know why the Pope came in the past and what is different now and is it really true that we are not as free as under British rule."

China has also launched a crackdown over the past month on the Falun Gong meditation movement, with widespread detentions. It has issued an arrest warrant for the movement's leader in the US.

Peking may face another challenge involving the Pope after Macau invited the Pope to visit the Portuguese-run enclave before it reverts to China on 20 December. That would require permission only from Portugal. (Reuters)