China said the long-serving bishop of Shanghai's state-run Catholic church, Aloysius Jin Luxian, died on Saturday, raising questions over who will succeed him.
Jin died of an unspecified illness on Saturday afternoon at a Shanghai hospital, the Shanghai government said in a brief statement. He was 96, according to his biography on the website of the Shanghai Catholic Diocese.
A diocese official confirmed news of his death, saying: "He has already passed away."
Jin's intended successor was Thaddeus Ma Daqin, but he was stripped of his title of auxiliary bishop last year after he dramatically split with official religious authorities.
Ma announced his split from the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association during his own ordination as auxiliary bishop of Shanghai -- which had been approved by Pope Benedict XVI -- last July.
Ma has not been seen in public since and is reportedly being held at the Shanghai seminary on the outskirts of the city, according to Catholic websites.
Catholic news service www.asianews.it, which announced Jin's death, said the bishop was a "controversial" figure who was sometimes accused of being too friendly with the Chinese regime.
But Jin also spent nearly two decades in prison under the Communist government, before being released on probation in 1972, it said.
China and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951 after Rome recognised the Nationalist government in Taiwan, a rival to the Communist regime.
Although Beijing and the Vatican have improved relations in recent years as the Chinese Catholic population has grown, they remain at odds over which side has the authority to ordain priests.
News of Jin's death spread quickly among Shanghai Catholics on Saturday by word-of-mouth.
"Our Bishop has finished his job. I believe he will go to Heaven as soon as possible," one Chinese Catholic in Shanghai said, adding Jin has not been seen at a mass since last year.
Jin was born in Shanghai on June 20, 1916, his official biography showed. He enrolled in seminary in 1932 and was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1945. Jin became Shanghai Bishop in 1988.