02/15/2007, 00.00
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Hunt for priests in Xiwanzi diocese

Police are conducting door-to-door searches for underground priests to force them inscribe to the Patriotic Association. The bishop, two priests and 20 members of the community are in prison. Catholics who do not collaborate are forced to give up their work.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The Patriotic Association (PA) has launched a violent campaign against underground Catholics in Xiwanzi. This was denounced in an appeal from some faithful that reached AsiaNews. Prompted by the local authorities, the police are on a manhunt, with door-to-door searches for underground priests to make them inscribe to the PA. Believers who refuse to collaborate and to act as spies are arrested or left without work. Those with shops are forced to shut down. The auxiliary bishop of the diocese, Mgr Yao Liang, has been missing in police custody since 30 July. There are also 20 believers and two priests in prison. The appeal that reached AsiaNews ended with a plea: “Brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the Christian faith in China may be truly free!”

The diocese of Xiwanzi (Hebei) is a diocese of the underground Church, with 15,000 members, around 260km north of Beijing, nearly at the border with Inner Mongolia.

On 28 July last, the faithful were getting ready for a pilgrimage to Mount Muozi, in Inner Mongolia, a tradition in place for 100 years. But for the first time, the police banned it and monitored all churches for 24 hours a day. On 30 July, the religious affairs office invited Mgr Yao Liang to Zhangjiakou (the centre of the district) to “discuss with him the restitution of some properties of the church” but instead they kidnapped him and held him in prison. “They deceived the bishop and so far we have heard nothing of him,” said the appeal.

In Hebei, the region with the highest number of Catholics, a harsh campaign of repression against the unofficial church has been under way for years in a bid to force it to join the PA.

On 1 August, Fr Li Huisheng was arrested, tortured by the police and later released. After this abuse, more than 90 believers (of the church of Shangyi, Xiwanzi diocese) protested outside the police headquarters. They were charged, beaten by police and forced to disperse. In the night, between 2 and 4am, around 500 police launched a raid, re-arresting Fr Li, who had returned to church, and 90 people. At least 20 are still in prison, together with Fr Li. Another priest of the diocese, Fr Wang Zhong, has disappeared.

Relatives of Fr Li have forked out 100,000 yuan (around 10,000 euros) to find six lawyers to defend him. But all the lawyers gave up his case under pressure from local officials. And so Fr Li was condemned to seven years for “inciting the masses against the government”. The priest is currently in Shalingzi prison of Zhangjakou. Other believers have been convicted of similar charges and sentenced.

The appeal that reached AsiaNews said: “To sustain the integrity of the faith, refusing to join the PA, priests are forced to remain in hiding to this day.” For months, mass has not been celebrated in churches of the diocese.

“The local authorities continue to search for priests from house to house but without success. They interrogate believers to find out where priests are hiding and they threaten them if they do not collaborate.” Because of their silence, they are persecuted. “The local government has sent financial controllers and health, quality and traffic inspectors to all shops owned by Catholics, saying these are ‘ordinary checks’. The vehicles of two believers have been seized together with their merchandise and their home has been confiscated and sealed off. Because of all these obstacles, which do not allow people to work normally, some believers have been forced to shut down their shops and to stop their activities.”

In recent years, the activities of the unofficial community of Xiwanzi were tolerated. On 18 July last, believers even inaugurated a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart in Guyang district. The church was constructed thanks to donations from believers, who tithed themselves for two years. “Those who did not have enough money offered hours of voluntary work, sacrificing their time of rest,” said a local Catholic. “Even women and children came to help to build this house of God.”

More than 7,000 people together with 21 priests and a bishop of the unofficial church participated in the consecration ceremony.

Some Catholics believe the worsening persecution is due to signals of dialogue between the Chinese government and the Vatican, which are being increasingly hindered by the Patriotic Association.

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