BEIJING (Reuters) - The hardline Chinese official removed last week as Communist Party chief of restive Tibet has been made head of the province in the center of contention over China's Catholics, giving him an influential role in another sensitive religious issue.

Zhang Qingli, who gained a reputation as an unyielding Communist Party secretary of heavily Buddhist Tibet, has been appointed party secretary of Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing, the Xinhua news agency reported late on Sunday.

Hebei, with a population of 70 million, is home to roughly a quarter of China's 8-12 million Roman Catholics.

Zhang, 60, was known for his tough stance against Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama, a man reviled by China as a separatist. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk denies advocating either violence or Tibetan independence.

Zhang was in charge of Tibet in 2008 when protests in the regional capital Lhasa gave way to deadly riots that rippled across other ethnic Tibetan areas. After the protests, he rained insults on the Dalai Lama, calling him a "jackal in Buddhist monk's robes."

Zhang's new post will give him an influential role in China's relationship with the Vatican, which is in dispute with Beijing over control of church affairs, especially appointing bishops.

China's Catholics are divided between a state-sanctioned church that has appointed bishops without the Vatican's approval and an "underground" wing wary of government ties. The underground church has deep roots in Hebei.

Late last year, 100 Catholic seminarians in Hebei demonstrated at the provincial government's religious affairs office, opposing the appointment of a government official to a senior post in their seminary, AsiaNews, a Catholic news service, reported at the time.

Pope Benedict has encouraged the two sides of the divided Chinese church to reconcile, and engaged in a low-key dialogue with Beijing. But Chinese authorities have appointed a succession of bishops without the Vatican's approval.

Last month, the Vatican denounced the ordination of a Chinese bishop without papal approval and excommunicated the bishop. Pope Benedict has said he "deplores" the way Chinese authorities have treated Chinese Catholics who want to remain faithful to Rome.

(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Frederik Richter)

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