Reuters reports that Bishop Fu died on Friday but AsiaNews quotes other sources who believe the bishop may have died as early as 12 April.
The death of Bishop Fu Tieshan, who oversaw the politically sensitive Beijing diocese, was officially announced by the Xinhua news agency. He died of lung cancer, said the vice chairman of the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian.
"His passing is a hard blow for our country's Catholics," Liu, chief spokesman for the state-backed church, told Reuters. "He defended China's independence - economic, political and spiritual - and he was devoted to the church."
Bishop Fu, who also used the Christian name Michael, was the most prominent figure in the state-backed church, having served as bishop of Beijing since 1979, when religion was just recovering from the ravages of Mao Zedong's radical Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Xinhua reported previously.
He did not have the Vatican's blessing, something many bishops in the state-approved church have sought and won, according to local church members.
Bishop Fu also served as a vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the rubber-stamp legislature, and was chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
"I felt he was an astute churchman who felt he was doing by his own light what he felt was right for the church," said Sr Janet Carroll of the US China Catholic Bureau, a group that promotes contact with Chinese Catholics.
"In more recent years he appeared to have leaned too closely to the government in a way that many in the church felt was difficult to understand."
"Most tragic" figure
Bishop Fu was born in Hebei, epicentre of Chinese Catholicism, which has some 10 million followers nationwide, including a third or more in the "underground" church.
"The Holy See would have been preparing for this for some time, and now it's going to be interesting to see how his funeral and succession are handled," Sr Carroll told Reuters.
AsiaNews says that before his death, Bishop Fu, who had been sick with lung cancer for many years, received the visit of President Hu Jintao.
According to AsiaNews, Bishop Fu Tieshan has been described at the "most tragic" figure of the Chinese Church: disliked and shunned by the faithful of his diocese for having continuously taken sides against the Pope, the Vatican and the people of China (he had praised the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 on state television); rewarded, praised, promoted up the government's and the Patriotic Association's bureaucratic ladder, becoming Vice-President of the People's National Assembly and President of the Patriotic Association.
A later AsiaNews report says that Bishop Fu Tieshan will receive a funeral fit for a "head of state" but that there will be no Vatican representative present, neither the religious ceremony nor the state burial.
Meanwhile, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian says that Taiwan's relations with the Vatican on issues of peace and charity will deepen in the years ahead. The president made his remarks at the Embassy of the Holy See in Taipei on Thursday.
China's Top State-Approved Catholic Bishop Dies (AsiaNews, 20/4/07)
China's Top State-Approved Catholic Bishop Dies (Javno, 20/4/07)
State funeral for Beijing's Patriotic bishop, party "property" (AsiaNews, 21/4/07)
LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Beijing diocese (Catholic Hierarchy)
President looks for deeper ties with Vatican (RTI Taiwan, 20/4/07)
Patriotic Church bishop critically ill (AsiaNews, 20/4/07)
Catholics Urged To Pray For Critically Ill Bishop Fu Of Beijing (UCA News, 20/4/07)
23 Apr 2007