HONG KONG – Local officials in China’s Hebei province continue to pressure priests to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The Asian church news agency UCA News reported Oct. 21 that the whereabouts of three unregistered priests, detained by police months ago, remain unknown while another has apparently been persuaded to join the patriotic association.
Fathers Liu Jianzhong, Zhang Cunhui and Zhong Mingchang were taken away by plainclothes police June 8, June 14 and Sept. 16, respectively.
Local church sources told UCA News that when the priests’ family members went to government departments to inquire about them, the authorities denied detaining them and refused family requests to help locate them.
Another priest in Hebei, Father Simon Zhang Jianlin, who was taken by police in July, is under house arrest in a county government building, UCA News reported. Sources said he has been brainwashed and has been persuaded to join the patriotic association, but he is allowed to receive visitors.
The priests are all from the Xuanhua Diocese, which Chinese officials do not recognize as a diocese. Sources told UCA news other priests from the diocese are under pressure to join the patriotic association and are under strict surveillance by local authorities.
For decades the Chinese Catholic Church has existed in two communities: one in which Catholics register with the Chinese authorities – and therefore operate under certain official limits – and one in which Catholics practice the faith in a more clandestine fashion.
In 1980, officials of the registered church community merged the Xuanhua and Xiwanzi dioceses to form the Zhangjiakou Diocese. Many unregistered Catholics began attending Masses at private venues.
A 2007 letter from Pope Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics urged reconciliation between the communities, which in some parts of China, such as Hebei, operate in the same areas. The letter emphasized that some aspects of the patriotic association were incompatible with church teaching and said the Holy See “leaves the decision to the individual bishop,” having consulted his priests, “to weigh … and to evaluate the possible consequences” of joining the association.
In a bid to forge unity between the two church communities, in 2000 Bishop Philippus Petrus Zhao Zhendong of Xuanhua, who died in 2007, allowed three priests from the registered community to work for him. He ordered the cancellation of all private worship venues in his diocese and encouraged Catholics to attend churches registered with the government.
Beginning in 2005, he allowed his priests to obtain priest cards for the sake of pastoral work. The priest cards, a special measure put in place in Hebei, are jointly issued by the provincial branches of the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Church Affairs Committee.
Some sources say that clergy who obtain the cards “enjoy more freedom in movement and religious activities,” but have to attend political study sessions and seek permission from the local authorities before organizing religious activities.
In the Xuanhua Diocese, sources told UCA News, about half of the 40 priests have registered with the government but continue to follow the leadership of Bishop Thomas Zhao Kexun, who is in hiding from the government.