The Vatican has called on China to stop intimidating Catholic clergy who are members of an underground church that is loyal to the pope.
The request was included in Vatican guidelines issued to the clergy Friday in mainland China.
An estimated 12 million Catholics in China are split between a government-operated association whose clergy are chosen by the atheist Chinese Communist Party and the underground church.
The appeal is the latest sign of tense relations between the Vatican and the Chinese government since the two sides signed a disputed agreement last September pertaining to the appointment of bishops.
Beijing has insisted that it has the authority to make final decisions on the pope’s appointments.
Chinese law requires priests and bishops to register with the state and sign a form accepting the principle of independence and self-determination of the Church in China.
The Vatican guidelines says bishops and priests could refuse on grounds of conscience and freedom.
Some clergy have refused out of fear that doing would jeopardize their allegiance to the pope and the independence of the local church on doctrinal issues.
Pope Francis has been trying to reverse decades of separation between the Vatican and Chinese communist authorities. The Vatican and Beijing cut off diplomatic relations in 1951.
September’s historic pact has also split Catholics around the world, some of whom have accused the pope of succumbing to the Communist government.
China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but the government began imposing more restrictions on religions viewed as a challenge to the Communist Party when President Xi Jinping took office six years ago.