Mgr Wei Jingyi was ordained Bishop of Qiqihar in Heilongjiang province in 1995, one of the northernmost dioceses of China. At 47, he is one of the youngest bishops in the underground Church.
He is well known for this loyalty to the Pope and for his commitment to evangelisation and this has landed him in forced labour camps, in 1987-89 and 1990-92, for a total of four years.
For a certain period of time, he was also secretary to the Bishops' Conference of the underground Church that emerged in the 1990s but was rapidly broken up by a wave of arrests.
On March 5, 2004, Bishop Wei was arrested at Harbin airport (Heilongjiang). The next day, Vatican spokesman Dr Joaquín Navarro-Valls released a statement to the press, saying:
"Worried and saddened, the Holy See has learned from international agencies the news of the arrest of a Catholic bishop in the region of Heilongjiang, China."
"Whatever the accusations are against the bishop, they should be made public, as happens in any lawful state. The Holy See, for its part, has no reason to doubt the innocence of the bishop".
That was the first time in many years that the Holy See let its voice be heard concerning bishops and faithful persecuted in China.
China immediately denied that Bishop Wei Jingyi was in prison and said that the underground Church prelate had only been taken into custody "on suspicion of having travelled abroad illegally". AsiaNews sources confirmed though that he was being held at a prison in Harbin.
At a weekly press conference, Foreign Minister spokesman Liu Jianchao said that "[p]ublic security officials have not taken any restrictive measures against him (Bishop Wei Jingyi)" and that "the rumours (about his arrest) do not correspond to the facts."
The prelate was eventually freed on March 14 thanks to the swift intervention of the Vatican, according to AsiaNews sources.
At the time, the People's National Congress (China's parliament) was debating whether to add 'freedom of religion' and "human rights protection' to China's constitution.
By quickly releasing Bishop Wei, Chinese authorities were able to avoid further embarrassment. China has frequently been the target of criticism that it does not practice what it preaches.
Evangelisation in the diocese of Qiqihar began in the early 1900s with the arrival of Bethlemite missionaries from Switzerland. Today, it has more than 70,000 faithful and dozens of priests and nuns.