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Bishops' release sought ahead of Vatican-China deal renewal

Two bishops have been under pressure and detention for their refusal to join the state-sanctioned church

Bishop Augustine Cui Tai of Xuanhua Diocese in Hebei province of China has been detained periodically since 2007

Bishop Augustine Cui Tai of Xuanhua Diocese in Hebei province of China has been detained periodically since 2007. (Photo: Bitter Winter)

Published: June 24, 2022 07:14 AM GMT

Updated: June 24, 2022 11:16 AM GMT

Chinese Catholics are demanding that the Vatican make the release of two jailed bishops a condition for the renewal of the controversial Vatican-China agreement that expires in October, says a report.

The bishops are in jail after they were arrested for refusing to toe the official line of the communist regime and join the state-sanctioned church in China.

Catholics across China are demanding that the Vatican should “not just ask for the release” of the bishops but "should make it a pre-condition” for renewing the agreement, said a report in Bitter Winter, a magazine specializing in Chinese Catholicism, on June 22.

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The magazine said it has sourced opinions of the clergy, religious and laypeople, who said they are respectful to the pope and the Vatican but still believe the Vatican has been “misled” by the Chinese regime over the deal.

The Vatican-China deal, whose provisions have not been made public, was first signed in 2018 for two years and was renewed for another two years in October 2020. It expires in October unless renewed by then.

Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xinxiang Diocese was arrested in May 2021 and is reportedly detained in an unknown place.

Bishop Cui Tai has been known as a popular prelate but he attracted the ire of the Chinese regime for his refusal to join the patriotic church

The prelate was arrested a day after Chinese police arrested 10 priests and an unknown number of seminarians after shutting down a diocesan seminary set up in an abandoned factory building. The priests and seminarians were later released but the bishop remained in detention.

Bishop Zhang, 66, has been under pressure from authorities since he was ordained with a Vatican mandate in 1990. He was barred from performing his duties as a bishop and was arrested on several occasions.

Bishop Augustine Cui Tai of Xuanhua Diocese in Hebei province has been detained periodically since his first arrest in 2007. The Vatican appointed him as a bishop in 2013, but he was arrested soon after.

The 72-year-old bishop was briefly released during Chinese New Year and other holidays. His latest detention came in June 2020 and since then his whereabouts remain unknown.

Bishop Cui Tai has been known as a popular prelate but he attracted the ire of the Chinese regime for his refusal to join the patriotic church.

Although China and Vatican do not have formal diplomatic relations, the deal reportedly allows the pope to approve and veto bishops nominated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Since the deal was signed, six bishops have been ordained with approval from both China and the Vatican. Besides, Pope Francis has recognized seven “illicit bishops” who were ordained without a papal mandate.

Despite the deal encouraging underground Catholics to follow the state-sanctioned church, only a few have done so, the report said.

In addition, general confusion among Catholics about whether to attend services in patriotic churches has been prompting them to abandon the Catholic Church, the article said

Some Catholics agree that at least in theory a single church in China is a good idea, and they don’t feel any “guilt” in participating in “schismatic” rites, the article said.

Most Catholics feel the deal serves the “best interests” of the party, the article said. 

For the Vatican, the deal intends to regularize the appointment of bishops and unite an estimated 10 million Chinese Catholics divided between the state-sanctioned church and the independent "underground" church.

Pope Francis has said that he wants to continue dialogue with China despite challenges.

Since the signing of the deal, Chinese authorities have intensified their crackdown on the underground church in an attempt to force underground Catholics to join the patriotic church, media reports and rights groups say.

In addition, general confusion among Catholics about whether to attend services in patriotic churches has been prompting them to abandon the Catholic Church, the article said.

Observers say the deal is an effort that might lead to the re-establishment of formal diplomatic ties with China, which were severed in 1951 following the communist takeover.

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