10/15/2005, 00.00
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Hanyang: Government hinders funeral of underground bishop

Local authorities had given permission for public funeral rites, but not before they had undertaken an intimidation campaign by phone across the province.

Although the government banned the use of the title "bishop" at the ceremony, a banner posted in the church, in view of government representatives, read: "Mgr Peter Zhang Bairen, unofficial bishop of Hanyang Diocese".

Hanyang (AsiaNews) – "The government fooled us," an AsiaNews source from Hanyang (Hubei) Diocese said today, the date of the funeral of unofficial bishop, Mgr Peter Zhang Bairen.

Local authorities accepted that a public funeral be held for the bishop, but first they made sure that as many believers as possible would not venture out of their homes, circulating secret orders which prohibited participation in the ceremony. The move did not deter at least 7,000 people, from the official and underground Churches, from going today to Zhangjiatai, the birthplace of the bishop, to pay him their last respects.

Mgr Zhang, who was not recognised by the government as a bishop, died on 12 October at the age of 91. The following day, the eldest priest in Hanyang Diocese, Fr Chen, received a visit from government representatives, who signaled acceptance of a public funeral for the bishop. However, according to sources of AsiaNews, already before this visit, the Hubei government had contacted all the dioceses and parishes of the province to warn them that participation in Mgr Zhang's funeral was forbidden. It was only after this intimidation campaign that representatives of the local Religious Affairs Office went to Zhangjiatai, the birthplace of Mgr Zhang, to agree about the funeral.

AsiaNews' sources said Hanyang believers feel "fooled" by the government, which orchestrated the whole affair "to save face" in international public opinion.

The function started at 9am and went on until 4pm. It was presided over by Fr Chen, the eldest of the four priests in Hanyang Diocese. Fifteen priests concelebrated, among them some from the official Church, who became priests thanks to Mgr Zhang.

In line with local legislation, the remains of Mgr Zhang were cremated; the urn with his ashes will be kept under the altar of the church of Zhangjiatai.

Testimonies gathered by AsiaNews bear witness to the fervent and emotional participation of the congregation of thousands of believers in the funeral.

However, there would have been many more priests and lay people present if the government had not conducted its preliminary intimidation campaign.

The local government forbade the use of the title of "bishop" throughout the ceremony: only the designations of "priest" and "elderly gentleman" were allowed. The leaders of the diocese, however, did not bend to threats and a banner was posted bearing the inscription: "Mgr Peter Zhang Bairen, unofficial bishop of Hanyang Diocese."

Local government representatives were present at the funeral as observers. As per tradition, they brought a wreath of flowers with the dedication, "to the elderly gentleman, Mr Zhang Bairen". The police guaranteed security and order throughout the function.

During his homily, Fr Chen recalled the deceased bishop thus: "Mgr Zhang was a courageous bishop, faithful to the pope; he lived his entire life always faithful to the Lord and to the universal Church, without ever letting go of this faith, even in the face of threats from political powers."

Since 1955, his obedience to the pope cost Mgr Zhang 24 years in prison or forced labour.

These days, many observers highlight modest signs of progress in ties between China and the Holy See: the invitation to the Sisters of Mother Teresa to open a house in China; the ordination of the auxiliary bishops of Shangai and Xian; the invitation of the pope to four Chinese bishops to the Synod of the Eucharist, accepted without argument by Beijing. Curiously, though, all these fledging signs seem to be betrayed at the eleventh hour.

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