Bishops, priests, seminarians arrested; churches closed and sealed. But meanwhile participation in house churches increases and 21 young men choose to enter the priesthood.
Beijing (AsiaNews) According to some Chinese policemen, Bishop Jia Zhiguo's long jail detention is a sign that the government wants to destroy the Diocese of Zhengding and Hebei's underground Church. But underground priests say that, thanks to persecution, there is more determination, enthusiasm in communities, as well as many new vocations: 21 young men have decided to become priests.
AsiaNews sources in Hebei confirm that Monsignor Julius Jia Zhiguo, unofficial bishop of Zhengding, is still in prison. He had been arrested last November 8, for a "study session", as are called the repeated attempts of authorities to convince bishops to join the Patriotic Association (PA). Usually, these "sessions" last a few weeks. This time his detention is longer and stricter. Rumours spread in January that the Bishop, age 70, would be released before the Chinese New Year, but that was not the case. Previously in 2004 and 2005, Bishop Jia had been arrested 8 times his priests managed to visit him secretly in prison, thanks to the help of certain policemen and the high regard in which they hold the Bishop, renowned for his charity in favour of orphans.
This time, however, the policemen do not dare bend the rules. An internal police contact revealed to the priests that "the government has made up its mind to destroy the underground church of Hebei," the region with the greatest number of Catholics. "This time," the contact says, "the government wants to isolate him completely: you will become a flock without a shepherd."
In fact, Zhengding's Church has suffered a long series of arrests over recent months:
- on November 7, Fr Li Suchuan, age 40, and Fr Yang Ermeng, age 35, both of Bishop Jia's diocese, were blocked by security agents and taken away from their parishes in the villages of Zhoujiazhuang and Zhoutou, both in the Jinzhou region. The two were set free on November 21;
- on November 12, Fr Yang Jianwei was arrested along with 10 seminarians. After 3 days in prison, 6 seminarians who were not from Baoding (Hebei) were set free and sent to their hometowns instead of back to the seminary. The other 4 Fan Fubin, Wang Yongliang, Wang Chunlei and Li Yutao are still under police custody in an unknown location. Fr Yang suffered the same fate: he too is in the hands of police.
- in mid-November, Fr Gao Baojin, rector of the underground seminary of the Diocese of Zhaoxian (Hebei) was abducted by members of the Religious Affairs Bureau and forced to undergo indoctrination sessions and brain-washing about joining the PA;
- on November 18, public security officers in Hebei arrested 6 Catholic priests of the Zhengding Diocese. Fr Wan Jin Shan and Fr Gao Lingshen, both about the age of 50, were not only arrested by also brutally beaten. The other 4 priests, Fr Zhang Xiuchi, age 60; Fr Zhang Yinhu, 45; Fr Guo Zhijun, 36 and Fr Peng Jianjun, 30, were initially put under house arrest, but were soon after formally arrested.
Meanwhile, all the churches of the Zhengding Diocese have been closed and sealed off by police. Priests celebrate Mass secretly in homes. If they are caught by police, they are sent back to their hometowns to work in the fields. "You are nothing but a peasant," a member of the Religious Affairs Bureau told an underground priest.
Fr Liu (alias) tells AsiaNews, "There was a time in which they would just threaten us. Now they are actually arresting us." But this situation of high alert and persecution is having unexpected results. Fr Liu says that a spirit of responsibility and service is growing among Catholics. "A layman confessed to me: Father, I am sorry that for so many years, I gave more importance to earning money. Now that our community is suffering persecution, we need to do more, even to the point of sacrificing ourselves for the Church."
Participation in house churches has increased. Missionary priests have returned from other areas of China to lend a hand. Seminarians lacking a seminary have been taken in by families and various priests are conducting their studies. This year 21 young men decided to enter the priesthood. One is an only child; two are from a rich family.
Fr Zhang (alias) concludes: "Everything is in order. The government thought they could destroy us, but they were wrong. Catholics are even more determined and enthusiastic. Before I had to push young people to attend Mass, but now they go willingly."