HONG KONG - The new head of Hong Kong's Catholic Church Thursday pledged to defend human rights and urged China to allow greater religious freedom in his influential new role as a bridging figure for Sino-Vatican ties.

John Tong Hon, who was appointed the new bishop of Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Church by Pope Benedict this week after the retirement of an outspoken predecessor, delivered a measured but firm message to Beijing in his first day on the job.

The present situation in China regarding the human rights and religious freedom is still far from ideal, said Tong.

Pope Benedict has made improving relations with China a main goal of his pontificate. But China says that before restoring ties, broken off two years after the Communist takeover of 1949, the Vatican must sever relations with Taiwan.

While Beijing and the Vatican having no formal diplomatic relations, Catholic leaders in Hong Kong, a former British colony with wide-ranging autonomy, hold an important liaison role.

Tong described his ties with Beijing as not bad and said he would be willing to travel to China for constructive exchanges.

He stressed, however, that despite being once dubbed a leftist priest early in his career, he would not be a pushover, and his loyalties were with the Vatican.

We have our own principles and a bottomline, the bespectacled and gently-spoken 69-year-old told reporters.

In China, there are 8 to 12 million Catholics now split between a state-sanctioned church and an underground church that rejects government ties and answers only to the Pope. Tong said he'd expressed concerns to Beijing during a trip to the Olympics last year, at the imprisonment of many Catholics there.

Tong replaces his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who was a constant thorn in the side of Beijing's Communist leadership with his uncompromising advocacy of democracy and human rights.

While Tong said he would not take part in street protests like Zen, he pledged to defend fundamental rights and Hong Kong's march toward full democracy as soon as possible.

We are born free and human rights are given by God. (We) shouldn't be restricted by any political government.

Asked if he supported calls for China to rectify its verdict on the 1989 Tiananmen Square military crackdown ahead of its 20th anniversary this year, Tong said: I think so ... because life is also very precious. All lives should be protected. Violence cannot solve the problem at all.