China, a country that will host the 2008 Olympics, still has people who die in its prisons because of their faith. Last Saturday, the Vatican Press Office gave the news of the death of Msgr John Gao Kexian, underground bishop of Yantai, and condemned this "serious violation" of religious freedom. Msgr Gao, age 76, had been taken into police custody in October 1999. Since then, he had been imprisoned in a secret location in the north of China. His corpse was handed over to his relatives at the end of August, without any explanation. Not even a photo of him is to be found anywhere.
AsiaNews asks one question: what caused Msgr Gao's death? Did he die of sickness? Did he die of hardships, given his life lived in poverty and on the run as an underground bishop? Did he die because of the exhausting interrogations to which Catholics are submitted to push them to join the Patriotic Association?
Or did he die from torture?
Fatal violence on the bodies of religious figures in China has been routine in China for at least 50 years. The last Catholic bishop to die in prison was Msgr Joseph Fan Xueyan of Baoding, in 1992, left dead on the steps of his home, wrapped in a plastic bag. His body showed signs of torture around the neck (perhaps as the result of a metal wire used to choke him) and various large bruises on his chest and his forehead. Last June, AsiaNews reported the death of Jiang Zongxiu, a woman of 34, who died in prison from the beatings she received on the day of her arrest. She had been imprisoned for having distributed Bibles in the province of Guizhou. The police informed Jiang's family, saying that she had died of a sudden illness, and handed over her remains. Her family found wounds and blood stains on her corpse.
Last February 6th, Chen Jingmao, the leader of the "South China Church", outlawed by the Chinese government, was beaten as punishment by prison guards. According to sources described as "informed", during the brutal assault, the guards would say "his doings -- bringing others to Christianity -- are a source of shame for the Communist Party". This 72-year-old Protestant leader was beaten by prison guards, who broke both his legs, for having converted 50 prisoners.
Torture and violence are also on record for Tibetan monks and nuns. According to Falun Gong, since 1999, at least 884 of their adherents have died in prison from torture, poisonings, beatings and "falls" from the top floors of police buildings.
Given these precedents, many Christians in China and around the world fear for the fate of two bishops from Baoding (Hebei), Msgr James Su Zhimin, ordinary, and Msgr Francis An Shuxin, auxiliary, who disappeared at the hands of police in 1997 and 1996 respectively. Since then, they have been untraceable. Last November, Msgr Su was spotted at the Baoding hospital, only to vanish once again.
In these past months, other Catholic bishops have been arrested. They did not undergo physical violence or torture, but were subjected to long hours of interrogation and attempts at brainwashing. According to Christian sources in China, they were freed and did not suffer fatal violence because they are well-known abroad and thanks also to the Vatican's call for their release. Msgr Wei Jingyi, bishop of Qiqihar and Msgr Jia Zhiguo, bishop of Zhengding, arrested in March and April and released after several weeks are well-known to international public opinion and various campaigns had been launched to call for their release.