TANGSHAN, China — The Tangshan Diocese announced it would not bury deceased Bishop Paul Liu Jinghe until the government returns a former church cemetery, so government officials took clergy away for questioning Dec. 18.

The Asian church news portal ucanews.com reported that, in an escalating standoff between church and state, the announcement delaying the burial was made at Bishop Liu's memorial service at Tangshan's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Dec. 17, prompting two minutes of applause from the 3,000 people gathered.

Officials arrived the following morning and took clergy away to offices of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. A source who declined to be named told ucanews.com that the mobile phones of all priests and nuns in Tangshan, east of Beijing, were placed under surveillance.

The disagreement over the cemetery escalated following the Dec. 11 death of Bishop Liu, 92. Before his death, the bishop had demanded to be buried at Lulong Cemetery, the final resting place of the diocese's first bishop, Ernst Geurts of Holland, who died in 1940.

The site became a church cemetery after priests and nuns were later buried there, but it was wrecked during political turmoil in the 1950s, shortly after the communists took power.

Since then, it has been used as farmland, and in 1993, with the government's permission, Bishop Liu reburied Bishop Geurts and other clergy in a corner of the 6.6-acre site.

The late bishop had demanded the return of the site several times during his lifetime. After he died, the diocese began negotiations with authorities but eventually rejected an offer of 200,000 yuan ($33,000) to buy an alternative plot to bury Bishop Liu.

To return the cemetery, authorities would have to compensate people who farm the site.

Church members were taking turns to guard the bishop's body inside Tangshan Cathedral as they awaited a solution to the dispute.