Chinese priest sentenced to three years for inaugurating a state-sanctioned church
Rome (AsiaNews) – Fr Wang Zhong, from the diocese of Xiwanze (Hebei), was sentenced to three years in prison for organising the celebrations of the consecration of a church in Guyuan. AsiaNews received a copy of an unofficial transcript of the trial. It indicates that a valid building permit was issued by the Religious Affairs Bureau for the construction of church. But it also says that Father Wang was an underground priest, unaffiliated with the state-sanctioned China Catholic Patriotic Association (CCAP).
The diocese of Xiwanzi (Hebei) is part of the underground Church. It has about 15,000 members and is located some 260 km north of Beijing, not far from the border with Inner Mongolia.
In this area for months the police have waged a campaign against priests and bishops from the underground Church, on the instigation of the CCAP.
The diocese’s auxiliary bishop, Mgr Yao Liang, disappeared into police custody on 30 July 2006; another 20 faithful and 2 priests are also in prison.
Father Wang was arrested on July 24, 2007 and taken away along with two other priests who had found shelter at the residence of a Catholic family in Xilinguole (Inner Mongolia).
After his arrest he was kept in total isolation with no visitation rights.
His trial opened on 29 October 2007 in Kangbao, Zhangjiakou district (Hebei).
Catholic faithful who attended the proceedings in the courtroom said that Father Wang, 41, was “in good physical conditions despite his long beard. He seemed a bit weak though but faced the ordeal with courage and a smile on his face.”
Charges against him were finally made public at the trial.
He is accused of organising an unlawful meeting (celebrating the consecration of the Guyuan church which is devoted to the Holy heart), and using the official seal of the parish (which in China is legally equated with a valid signature) without the permission of state authorities.
The facts are that the church in Guyuan was built with the right permit and paid for by the faithful themselves who raised the money over a two-year period. Those who could not make a financial contribution offered their own labour.
Some 7,000 people, including underground 21 priests and a bishop took part in the 18 July 2006 ceremony of consecration.
Father Wang’s defence attorney at the trial noted that “the new church and its consecration where approved by Zhangjiakou authorities. The permit issued by them was presented as an exhibit at the trial. The local Religious Affairs Bureau and United Front Work Department even contributed about 1000 yuan (US$ 140) to the construction. All of this evidence is in the parish registry.” Hence in the lawyer’s opinion, there is sufficient evidence to show that the “meeting was not illegal.”
As for the seal used, he noted that it “as parish church property (its top read ‘Parish Church Affairs’), it was an internal Church matter and was not an official seal. At the centre it sports a sign of the cross rather the five-pointed star which symbolises the Chinese government.”
An eyewitness even testified that the “seal was made with the permission of the deputy director of the Civil Affairs Bureau, which comes under the Religious and National Affairs Bureau. Thus Father Wang could not be guilty.”
However, the prosecution called a policeman to the stand to say that consecration celebrations had caused local traffic problems.
But according to the unofficial transcript, “everyone knows that the church is located in an isolated area, far from the main road, and that it has a big parking area.”
In his final plea, Father Wang’s defence attorney said that the charges were unfair and baseless, founded on “false testimonies.”
Before sentencing the judge suspended the trial in order to confer with the authorities.
After two days of discussion involving the political commissar (an influential member of the Communist Party) and representatives of the United Front and the Religious Affairs Bureau, no decision was taken. The judge turned instead to higher authorities for advice.
The trial was resumed on November 14. More than 200 of Father Wang’s parishioners were present. But the session lasted only 10 minutes during which the judge sentenced the priest to three years in prison for organising an unlawful meeting.
The defence attorney protested at the decision and said he would appeal.
Parishioners tried to get close to the priest, but police agents removed him from the courtroom right away and took him away by car.
The unofficial transcript made by some of the faithful present at the trial ends on some thoughts. It says that “this unjust sentence shows that there is no justice in China. On the one hand, they say there is religious freedom; on the other, Church members are arrested or done away with.”
“This unlawful sentence is a slap in the face of [President Hu Jintao’s] much-vaunted ‘harmonious society.’ Father Wang is but a helpless lamb that can be easily slaughtered, whilst the real criminals get away with facing the law.”
In the end what happened to Father Wang seems to confirm the idea that the Religious Affairs Bureau is engaged in a full-blown “normalisation” campaign against underground Churches in order to force them to register with the CCAP as the only way to carry out their ministry.
But as Benedict XVI pointed out in his Letter to Chinese Catholics the CCAP is an entity “incompatible with Catholic doctrine.”