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Remembering nine brave men martyred in China

The bishop who died while protecting "comfort women"

An illustration from the comic book about the life of Bishop Frans Schraven An illustration from the comic book about the life of Bishop Frans Schraven
  • China
  • October 9, 2012
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A series of activities takes place this week to mark the 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of a Dutch bishop and his companions.

Bishop Frans Schraven (1873-1937) was among nine Europeans murdered and burnt by Japanese soldiers in Zhengding, Hebei province in northern China, on October 9, 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

In an incident that became known as the “Massacre of Zhengding Church,” the deaths were believed to be in retaliation for the clerics’ refusal to provide the Japanese invaders with 200 young “comfort” women.

Thousands of people had taken refuge in the cathedral compound when the Japanese troops captured the walled town. After refusing to give the women up, the foreigners were taken away. Months later, local Catholics found Bishop Schraven’s bloodstained cap, a string of rosary beads belonging to one of the other martyrs, a piece of anklebone and some other relics in a Buddhist pagoda, 300 meters from the cathedral.

From today until Sunday October 14, the Msgr. Schraven Foundation in the Netherlands is commemorating these events at the Holy Name Jesus parish in Broekhuizenvorst.

Chinese Archbishop Savio Hon, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, will be the main celebrant of the Sunday Mass and Father Masakatsu Fukamizu, 74, from Tokyo archdiocese, will represent  Japan. Representatives of countries where the other martyrs came from – Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia – will also join the event.

Vincent Hermans, secretary of the foundation, told ucanews.com that apart from remembering the martyrs, the foundation was looking to promote their cause for sainthood. The foundation’s local bishop has asked the Holy See for permission to start the beatification process and is waiting for an answer, he said.

Hermans, who has conducted two investigations in China, presented his findings at a Beijing symposium three years ago.

Chinese official archives have very little information on Bishop Schraven, since a lot of historical materials disappeared in China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Fortunately, “many documents about the massacre could be found in European archives, such as the French and Dutch foreign ministries,” he said.

Then, according to Hermans, a crucially important letter was found in the Vatican’s secret archives last year. A Japanese colonel wrote to the papal representative in Beijing at that time: “They died as martyrs for their missionary ideal."

The colonel, who was a Catholic, perfectly understood the meaning of “martyr” and this letter ended more than 70 years of uncertainty, Hermans said.

Of the nine martyrs, seven were members of the Congregation of the Mission (Lazarists) – Bishop Schraven, four priests and two brothers. One was a Trappist monk and one was a layman.

Their story will be officially presented in a comic book, which will be available in four languages from October 13. Belgian artist Geert de Sutter illustrated the book titled Mail from China – A history of lived faith with a surprising actuality.

Zhengding Cathedral was confiscated by the Communist government in the late 1940s and is now part of an army hospital.

The official Church community moved their cathedral to nearby Shijiazhuang city and renamed the diocese Shijiazhuang in the 1980s. But the unregistered community led by Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo, who is not recognized by the government, continues to use the name Zhengding.

The most recent foreign saints martyred in China were two Italian Salesian clergy, Bishop Louis Versiglia and Father Callixtus Caravario, murdered by pirates in 1930. They were canonized along with 120 Chinese martyrs in 2000.

Numerous Catholics have sacrificed their lives for their faith since then, especially during the Second Sino-Japanese War and under the Communist regime, but the Holy See has yet to honor them, possibly due to political sensitivity.
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