09/11/2006, 00.00
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Chinese Catholics ask Prodi to raise issue of jailed bishops and religious freedom

Religious freedom in China better guarantees favourable conditions for the economy. Social stability does not rest on social control or tanks. The Italian Prime Minister, who heads a Catholic country, can explain the importance of the Holy See which is not seeking "Communists' destruction".

Rome (AsiaNews) – In his upcoming trip to Beijing, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi should ask Chinese authorities to release jailed bishops or at least "provide him with information about them", especially those who disappeared years ago without leaving a trace. He should also tell his Chinese hosts that promoting religious freedom is the best way to ensure social stability and harmony for both society and the economy. Finally, as the head of a coalition government that includes Communists, he should show how "a Catholic country like Italy does not want the destruction of Communists but wants instead the good of society."

These are a few of the suggestions Chinese Catholics sent to AsiaNews as the Italian PM prepares to leave on a state visit to China. For security reasons, names cited hereafter are invented, but other details (profession, location, etc.) are real.

Romano Prodi's visit in China is scheduled to last from September 12 to the 18; towards the end of the week he will meet Chinese President Hu Jintao and his counterpart, Wen Jiabao. At least 500 business people and government officials are going with him in order to breathe new life into trade between Italy and China.

John Zhang, an underground Catholic from Hebei province, said that the bishop of Baoding, James Su Zhimin was detained by the police ten years and has not been heard ever since. "I call on your Prime Minister to do something to free this bishop, who is old by now, or at least get some information about his health and whereabouts."

In Hebei, home to a large underground community, the police and the Patriotic Association have targeted the Church for years in order to force Catholics into the official Church or eliminate them. For this reason at least five bishops have disappeared over the years into the hands of the police. In addition to Mgr James Su Zhimin, 73, who was arrested in 1996, they are Mgr Julius Jia Zhiguo, bishop of Zhengding, who was arrested a few months ago; Mgr Han Dingxian, 67, bishop of Yongnian, arrested in 2005; Mgr Yao Liang, 84, auxiliary  bishop of Xiwanzi, arrested in 2005; and Mgr Cosma Shi Enxiang, 83, from the diocese of Yixian, who was arrested on April 13, 2001.

For Paula Chan, a university professor from Shanghai, releasing the bishops is not good enough. "Even if they free them all, what does that change? The real issue is how to guarantee actual religious freedom".

In her opinion promoting religious freedom is something good for the economy. "Religious freedom encourages freedom of the press, freedom of speech and greater ethics. With it, the flow of information in China, where news are often manipulated, becomes freer, information becomes more accurate. The net effect is that the widespread corruption affecting the Chinese business community and party members can be reined it".

For Professor Peter Yue, who is from the highly developed province of Zhejiang, China does not have an economic environment that is favourable to investment. "The 500 Italian businessmen coming will find serious difficulties. Here the law does not guarantee anything. Corruption is king; courts are ruled by abuse and manipulation. In fact Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have been promoting stability and harmony but neither can exist without freedom, especially religious freedom. Harmony does not rest on social control or tanks. It must be built on freedom and everyone's participation; otherwise, social stability is lost and economic development grinds to a halt."
For a priest in Beijing Prodi's visit might improve relations between China and the Vatican. "The Chinese government fears the Catholic Church because it is afraid it might cause the collapse of Chinese communism as it did in Poland and Eastern Europe. But the Italian government, which is close to the Vatican, could make it realise that the Holy See is not a political enemy bent on China's downfall. The fact that Prodi's government includes Communists in a Catholic country like Italy shows that the Church is not after the Communists' destruction but is instead seeking religious freedom for the good of society."

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