BEIJING -- Bishop Fu Tieshan, chairman of China's state-sanctioned Catholic Church, died Friday, state media said. He was 76.
The state-backed church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, refuses to recognize the Vatican's authority, but many clergy and ordinary Catholics remain loyal to the pope and have been persecuted for it.
The People's Daily newspaper said Bishop Fu died in a Beijing hospital on Friday night but gave no cause of death. He was also a vice chairman to the standing committee of China's legislature, the National People's Congress.
There was no immediate announcement on who would take over as head of the Catholic Association.
The Post quoted Liu Bainian, the association's vice chairman, as saying that Bishop Fu "loved the nation and the church throughout his entire life and was a respected leader of the church."
He also said Bishop Fu had been visited Friday by President Hu Jintao and earlier this week by other top leaders.
Beijing made Fu a bishop in 1979, though the appointment lacked approval by the pope, the Post said.
Beijing's ties with the Vatican were broken in 1951 after the communists took power. Worship is only allowed in government-controlled churches, but as many as 12 million Catholics are estimated to belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.
The Vatican has long indicated that it wants to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, but will not compromise on the tradition dictating that only the pope and not a local church can appoint bishops.