03/09/2019, 13.49
CHINA – VATICAN
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Priest suspended in Xuanhua after switching to official Church and getting the authorities to arrest his (underground) bishop

by Bernardo Cervellera

Mgr Cui Tai told AsiaNews that the "charismatic" activities of Fr Zhang Li are distorted and do not follow episcopal guidelines. His concept of "unity" is not that of the Holy See. The priest wants to see the underground community eliminated, absorbed by the official Church.

Rome (AsiaNews) - A priest in the Diocese of Xuanhua (Hebei) was suspended from the ministry after leaving the underground Church for the official Church.

The clergyman, Francesco Zhang Li, has accused his (underground) bishop of not following the Sino-Vatican agreement and urged local authorities to arrest him.

He also set up a group that has encouraged believers to disown their bishop and switch to the community recognised by the government.

The priest is also suspected of using superstitions and “miracles” to make people join a community of "charismatic renewal".

Fr Zhang, 60, has been a priest for 30 years. In the past he did a good job as an evangeliser in the Diocese of Xuanhua, under Coadjutor Bishop Mgr Augustine Cui Tai (picture 1).

The diocese was established by the Holy See in 1946, but in 1980 the government merged Xuanhua with Xiwanzi to create the official Diocese of Zhangjiakou, which is not recognised by the Holy See.

According to Fr Zhang’s fellow priests, he expressed interest in moving to the official Church last year, and joined the Diocese of Zhangjiakou without the permission of his bishop.

After the signing of the Sino-Vatican agreement last September, he openly spoke out against Mgr Cui Tai, accusing him of not following, in his words, “the Pope's indications" in favour of "a united official Church".

He also set up a group of about 100 people, including some priests, who have been urging the faithful in Xuanhua not to recognise the authority of Mgr Cui Tai.

Faced with confusion and grief among the faithful, the Vicar general  intervened and, on 23 December, after "turning to the authority of the Holy See," put a ban on Fr Zhang Li, prohibiting him from exercising the ministry or receiving any sacrament.

Fr Zhang reacted by threatening to turn to government authorities to have anyone who stopped him arrested. A few days after the suspension, police took the bishop into custody and held him for 15 days.

According to local witnesses, the government would like to see local Catholics move into the fold of the official diocese and is trying to get Mgr Cui Tai to lift the ban on Fr Zhang.

On 3 March, Mgr Cui Tai reiterated his suspension, telling AsiaNews that the agonising step was taken "above all because the 'charismatic' activities undertaken by Fr Zhang are distorted. He is working with a Protestant clergyman in a way that is unclear, exaggerates [the] miraculous effects [of prayer], and invents miracles. In the past, local bishops banned such practices, but he has failed to follow their instructions."

Secondly, "he is promoting a concept of the 'unity' of the Diocese of Zhangjiakou as one, which the Holy See does not recognise. He is causing divisions within the Church and does not recognise the Diocese and bishop of Xuanhua."

What is more, Fr Zhang has claimed that he was chosen by the government as "vicar" of the Diocese of Zhangjiakou and is paid a monthly salary of 7,000 yuan, about US$ 1,040.

Following the Sino-Vatican agreement, other priests in Zhangjiakou have claimed that Catholics must join the official community and register with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), calling on the faithful in Xuanhua not to recognise its bishop, whom they describe as "unlawful".

Mgr Cui Tai has been repeatedly placed under house arrest or sent to forced labour camps for his work of evangelisation not recognised by the government.

Card Joseph Zen has often spoken out in his favour, calling for his release and demanding that religious freedom be guaranteed (picture 2).

For Mgr Cui Tai, Catholics must be "good citizens" and support the country’s development, but he also demands real religious freedom and the right not to be forced into the CPCA, which claims that it is building a Church that is "independent" of the Holy See.

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