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China Releases Bishop After 10 Years Imprisonment

By Stefan J. Bos,

8/26/2006 China (BosNewsLife) Catholic news agency AsiaNews quoted unidentified sources as saying Francis An Shuxin, auxiliary bishop of Baoding in Hubei province, was released by authorities Thursday, August 24, after 10 years imprisonment because “he accepted to be recognized by the government, without having to register with the Patriotic Association (PA).”

The PA was founded by the Communist Party to construct its own Catholic Church, independent of the Vatican and the influence of the pope.

Bishop Francis, backed by millions of others in China ’s growing underground Catholic Church, angered Communist authorities by rejecting the PA, recognizing instead the pope’s authority.

FORMER PRESIDENT

The 57-year-old bishop was reportedly detained in May 1996 in a raid ordered by then-President, Jiang Zemin, against an underground seminary of Baoding . The seminary, which was led by Francis, was disbanded after his detention while priests and the formation team were reportedly arrested.

Beijing declared his underground Catholic Church “illegal” and for years there was no news of him, but human rights groups, churches and governments pressured Beijing to release the bishop.

The Cardinal Kung Foundation, an American organization that lobbies for the underground Catholic Church, said the last time the bishop was seen during his detention was in 2000, when police allowed him to visit his frail, elderly mother, to mark the Chinese New Year. He reportedly told her: “I will see you in heaven.”

GOVERNMENT STATUS

Catholic observers in China say the conditions surrounding Bishop Francis’ sudden release from jail seem to safeguard his loyalty to the Vatican , while providing some official status to the Chinese government in his church affairs.

The compromise is seen as part of carefully calculated efforts by the Vatican to attain the release of imprisoned bishops and priests while achieving closer ties between the government backed PA and the unofficial Catholic Church.

At least six other underground bishops of Hebei disappeared after Francis’ arrest. Among them is the Ordinary of the diocese of Baoding , James Su Zhimin, 73 years, who was arrested in 1997, Christians rights activists say.

CATHOLIC STRONGHOLD

The Hebei province, surrounding Beijing, is seen as a stronghold of the underground Catholic Church, and Christians claim government officials have frequently conducted arrests and raids to “discourage and intimidate” the faithful.

In most recent incidents since July 30, authorities in Hebei arrested over 90 members of the underground Catholic Church, including Bishop Yao Liang, the Cardinal Kung Foundation said.

A priest of the same diocese, Father Li Huisheng, was arrested on August 1, the group claimed. When some Catholic faithful protested the arrests, and asked for information about the whereabouts of the jailed clerics, police allegedly mobilized a force of 500 to jail 90 members of the underground Church on August 2.

MEN HOSPITALIZED

The Cardinal Kung Foundation said two men were hospitalized following the police raid, and one pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage. Most of the lay Catholics taken into custody were reportedly released, but the Foundation said 20 remain imprisoned. There was no immediate independent confirmation and officials have not commented on the number of detentions.

The arrests followed a previous crackdown on Protestant “house churches” in the area, in which thousands of Christians clashed with a massive force of military police on July 29.

Chinese authorities have denied wrongdoing and said the Christians violated Chinese laws. The government also maintains there is no religious persecution in China as believers can worship in the government-supported denominations.

However most of the country’s estimated 80 million Christians prefer to worship outside the official churches, human rights groups say. Analysts have linked reports of a crackdown on churches in several areas to concern within the Communist Party of China that the extending underground Catholic and Protestant movements could threaten its powerbase in the world’s most populous country of roughly 1.3 billion people.