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FILE PHOTO - Cardinal Joseph Zen adjusts his cap as he attends a news conference in Hong Kong March 30, 2006. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

(reuters_tickers)

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Tuesday rebuked a senior cardinal who said its diplomats were "selling out" Chinese Catholics loyal to the pope as part of a deal aimed at normalising ties with Beijing's communist government.

In a sharply worded statement, the Vatican said it was surprising and regrettable that some people in the Church were "fostering confusion and controversy".

It came a day after Cardinal Joseph Zen, the outspoken former archbishop of Hong Kong, caused a stir with a long post on his Facebook page that was highly critical of the Vatican.

The statement, which did not name Zen but which official Vatican sources said was prompted by the controversy he began, said it was "surprising and regrettable" that some were promoting "a presumed difference of thought and action" between Pope Francis and his top aides over China strategy.

Zen has often criticised the Vatican's attempt at rapprochement with the government of China, where Catholics are split between an "underground" Church that recognises the pope and those belonging to a state-controlled group where bishops are appointed by the government.

In his post, Zen, 86, referred to a report by AsiaNews agency about the activity of Vatican negotiators seeking to reunite the two Churches ahead of possible resumption of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Beijing that were severed after the communist takeover in 1949.

AsiaNews said last week that Vatican negotiators had asked two bishops loyal to the pope to give up their posts to make room for two backed by the government.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news briefing on Wednesday that she wasn't aware of the specifics of the situation, but that China looks to "maintain constructive dialogue" with the Vatican based on "relevant principles". She did not elaborate.

The main point of contention between the Vatican and Beijing has for decades been which side can appoint bishops.

In his post, Zen said the pope had told him that he instructed his aides "not to create another Mindszenty case".

He was referring Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, who was freed from jail during Hungary's short-lived anti-Soviet uprising in 1956 and given refuge in the U.S. embassy in Budapest for 15 years before the Vatican forced him to leave the country.

Critics at the time said the Vatican had sold out to the communists but the Holy See said it was necessary to protect the Church from more persecution.

In his post criticising Vatican diplomacy, Zen wrote: "So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months."

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Catherine Evans and Nick Macfie)

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Reuters