Cardinal Joseph Zen has accused the Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, of misrepresenting Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in the latest chapter of an ongoing conflict on the best way to deal with the communist government in China.

Last week, Zen, the 86-year-old retired Bishop of Hong Kong, wrote an open letter on Facebook criticizing a request by a Vatican diplomat visiting China that two bishops belonging to the underground Church loyal to the pope step down in favor of two bishops belonging to the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).

Two days after Zen’s comments, Parolin told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that although it was legitimate to have different views on how to approach China, “no personal point of view can be considered as an exclusive interpreter of what is good for Chinese Catholics.”

Parolin then explained the Vatican’s engagement with China, saying “the Holy See has always maintained a pastoral approach, trying to overcome the contrasts and making itself available for a respectful and constructive dialogue with the civil authorities.”

The People’s Republic of China broke off relations with the Vatican in 1951 and established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association to supervise Catholics in the country in 1957.

The CPCA does not recognize the authority of the pope, and a parallel “underground” Church exists which recognizes papal authority.

Zen served as Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002-2009. The former British colony has religious freedom as part of the agreement with Britain leading up to the transfer of the territory to China.

In a statement published by AsiaNews on Feb. 6, Zen said Parolin’s interview contained “paradoxical fallacies” and accused the Secretary of State of having “the audacity to insult Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.”

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a landmark letter in which he said full reconciliation “cannot be accomplished overnight,” but added that “for the Church to live underground is not a normal situation.” The letter said there was only one Catholic Church in China and encouraged unity in their profession of faith, granting some validity to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and permission for Catholics to participate in the official Church.

Zen said that Parolin cited the letter out of context in his interview, “by saying: ‘The solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities.’”

“But he did not say the second half of the sentence: ‘At the same time, though, compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church.’ (Pope Benedict XVI Letter 2007, 4.7),” Zen wrote.

“The Secretary of State of the Holy See says: ‘We understand the pain of Chinese brothers and sisters yesterday and today.’ Alas! This man of little faith knows what real pain is?” Zen asked. “Mainland brothers are not afraid of losing homes and properties, not afraid of being imprisoned, also not afraid of shedding blood. Their greatest pain is to be betrayed by their ‘closed ones’ [the government-backed Church being the ‘open’ Church]!”

The cardinal’s statements have come as various sources are reporting a possible breakthrough in Sino-Vatican relations.

Both Reuters and the Wall Street Journal have cited Vatican sources as confirming a deal on the appointment of bishops has been reached, and several government-approved bishops would be reconciled with Rome.

The prospects of a deal were strengthened by a positive editorial in the Global Times, a state-owned newspaper in China.

“The Beijing-Vatican deal, if clinched, would be tremendously beneficial to Catholics. As a result of changes in secular political patterns, disputes are inevitable in the history of religion, and may evolve into religious splits in many circumstances,” the Feb. 5 editorial read.

“The Holy See reached a consensus with Vietnam on bishop appointment and an agreement with China on the issue would reflect Catholics’ ability to adapt to changes. People who sympathize with Catholics have no reason to feel antipathy,” the newspaper said.

Zen said Catholics in China find the developments troubling.

“The mainland brothers and sisters, in the past few days, have heard that the Vatican is ready to surrender to the Chinese Communists, their hearts are probably very uncomfortable,” the cardinal wrote in his latest message.

“If the illicit and excommunicated bishops are to be legitimized, and the legitimate bishops are to be forced to retreat, wouldn’t the legitimate bishops of the underground communities be worried about their fate? Priests and believers will soon have to obey and respect those who are today illicit and excommunicated but become legitimized bishops by the Holy See because of the backing by the Chinese government. How many painful nights will they have to bear?” Zen asked.

The cardinal mentioned the communist government’s new religious regulations – which call for greater “Sinicization” of Chinese Christians and asserts greater government control of religious organizations – which went into effect on Feb. 1.

Zen called the new rules a “great plague” and said the underground priests of Shanghai have informed their Church members not to go to their Masses.

The Chinese cardinal then revealed a private conversation he says he had with Pope Francis, in which Zen asserts he told the pope, “The Church on the mainland is objectively speaking a schismatic one (independent and government-managed).”

Zen said the pontiff responded, “Of course!”

The cardinal also responded to an unnamed Vatican official telling Reuters, Chinese Catholics will be “like caged birds, but the birdcage will be bigger.”

“The question is not the size of the birdcage, but who are inside the birdcage? The faithful of the underground communities are not inside the birdcage. Now it is you who force them into the cage, and have to ‘unite’ inside the birdcage? Of course, in the birdcage some are slaves, but some are willing to be in the cage to be minions of the swagger,” Zen said.