Sources told AsiaNews that the squeeze is on underground communities in Hebei province near Beijing (home to the highest concentration of Catholics in the country), including on people who meet just to celebrate Mass.
In fact a few days ago, 55-year-old Fr Paul Ma, a priest in Dung Lü, was arrested for celebrating the Eucharist with a few underground parishioners.
Members of his congregation are concerned about his fate because he has heart condition and is not likely to get treatment whilst in detention.
Controls and arrests are up because of the coming anniversary of the death of Mgr Joseph Fan Xueyan, bishop of Baoding, who was killed by police in 1992. The faithful traditionally visit his grave and organise prayers in memory of the martyr.
After decades in concentration camps, Bishop Fan was seized by police in early 1992. On 13 April of that year police reported him dead, his body showing torture marks, left at night stuffed in a plastic bag on the front door of relatives.
Sources told AsiaNews that two other bishops from the underground Church have been missing for a number of years lost somewhere in police custody with nothing known about their fate.
The first one is Mgr James Su Zhimin (diocese of Baoding, Hebei), 75, who was arrested in 1996. Nothing was known about him until November 2003 when he was spotted in a police-controlled hospital in Baoding, undergoing treatment for heart and eye problems, only to vanish a few days later.
The second clergyman is Mgr Cosma Shi Enxiang (diocese of Yixian, Hebei), 86, who was arrested on 13 April 2001, never to be heard of again. Ordained in 1982 Monsignor Shi had spent 30 years in prison. Arrested in December 1990 and released in 1993, he was forced to live in isolation until his latest arrest.
According to the aforementioned sources, tens of underground priests are also languishing in prison and forced labour camps. Tens of other underground bishops are being held in isolation as well.
The official Church is also not free from repression, tight controls and hardships. In recent months government-approved bishops have been forced to undergo weeks, sometimes months, of political sessions that focus on the importance of the Communist Party’s religious policy.
Some bishops, like that of Beijing, have been forced to publicly praise the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and criticise “Vatican interference” in the internal affairs of China.
Of late pressures have increased because almost all official bishops are secretly in communion with the Holy See and many are working with their underground counterpart, much to the annoyance of the authorities who are not pleased with the reconciliation between the underground and official Church by a “foreign power,” i.e. the Pope.
Since Benedict XVI released a Letter to Chinese Catholics in June 2007 acts of reconciliation between the two branches of the Church in China have occurred, with the effect of marginalising the CPCA, the Communist party agency that controls the Church.
The wave of harassment underway is thus meant to break this new found unity.
For the purpose the CPCA has organised nation-wide meetings ahead of the election of its new chairman as well as that of the Council of Chinese Bishops (a body like a normal Catholic Bishops’ Conference but without the Vatican seal of approval).
Both positions are vacant. CPCA chairman Michael Fu Tieshan, who was elected in 1998, passed away in 2007. Mgr Joseph Liu Yuanren, patriotic bishop of Nanking who was elected chairman of the Council of Bishops in 2004, has been dead since 2005.
In the making for several months, a National Congress of Catholic Representatives is supposed to fill the two vacant positions. If it has not taken place yet it is because many official bishops do not want to participate.
Cardinal Zen, in a message to Chinese bishops released last December, asked them to boycott the meeting, to honour their communion with the Pope, who in his 2007 Letter said that Catholic doctrine and CPCA ideals and policies are “irreconcilable”.
The commission that meets today in the Vatican till Thursday includes some 30 people, superiors and members of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See and of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples as well as representatives of the Chinese episcopate like Card Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, his coadjutor Mgr John Tong Hon, Mgr Jose Lai Hung-seng of Macao, Mgr John Hung Shan-chuan of Taipei and Mgr Bosco Lin Chi-nan of Tainan (Taiwan).
The meeting, which was announced in the Osservatore Romano, will also include discussions “on important and current religious questions.”