A Month of Mary procession is held in Shantou in Guangdong province in May 2017. Chinese authorities have been clamping down on such activities. (Photo: UCA News)
Authorities in northern China have arrested a Vatican-appointed Catholic bishop, his seven priests, and an unspecified number of seminarians in what is seen as part of a renewed crackdown on the underground Catholic Church in the communist country.
Police arrested 63-year-old Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xinxiang Diocese in Henan province on May 21, a day after they detained the priests and seminarians for allegedly violating the country’s repressive new regulations on religious affairs.
Chinese authorities have not recognized Xinxiang Diocese ever since the Vatican erected it in 1945.
Bishop Zhang was ordained secretly in 1991 as his appointment by the Vatican was not approved by the state-aligned Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).
China implemented a new set of rules for religious clergy that came into effect this month. It asks all clergy to register with the state in order to serve Catholics while asking Catholics to elect their bishops democratically.
The rules ignore the Sino-Vatican deal, which reportedly agreed on appointing bishops by mutual agreement, ending the conflict of the state appointing Catholic bishops without the Vatican’s mandate.
The arrests came after the diocese decided to use an abandoned factory building as a seminary
Dioceses headed by Vatican-approved bishops are part of the underground church not aligned with the state. The regulations, local Catholics say, aim to end the underground church by criminalizing and arresting its clergy as they work outside the state-approved database of the clergy.
The Sino-Vatican deal was signed for two years in September 2018 purportedly to unify the Catholic Church. It was renewed in 2020 but the deal has led to increased persecution of the underground church, Catholics say.
Since the deal came into force, the Vatican has approved seven Beijing-appointed bishops, but the state-sanctioned church has approved and installed five Vatican-appointed bishops.
Bishop Zhang, who heads the diocese of 100,000 Catholics, has not been approved by the state-run church even after the Sino-Vatican deal was signed.
He has been continuously under pressure from state authorities and was arrested on several occasions but later released.
Local Catholics said a government-appointed administrator has run the diocese since 2010 and reports to the state directly. The bishop is not allowed to manage diocesan finances and resources.
The arrests came after the diocese decided to use an abandoned factory building as a seminary. Church authorities were accused of violating rules.
Media reports claimed about 100 policemen surrounded the building the day before Bishop Zhang was arrested. While the police deployment continues, a manhunt in underway to search for other seminarians who allegedly fled to avoid arrests.
Last year authorities in Xinxiang shut down Catholic schools and kindergartens in line with the Chinese Communist Party’s ban on education by religious groups including the Catholic Church, reported Bitter Winter, a magazine on religious liberty and human rights.
Since 2018, several church-run orphanages for the poor, orphans and disabled children were shut down in various provinces of China.
The Mother of the Lord and of the Church is venerated with particular devotion in the Sheshan shrine
Authorities have accused Christian groups of proselytizing and converting children by using charities and of violating a repressive clause in the new regulations.
The crackdown in Xinxiang comes at a time when Pope Francis has called on Catholics worldwide to pray for Christians in China as they celebrate on May 24 the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians, and patroness of their “great country.”
“The Mother of the Lord and of the Church is venerated with particular devotion in the Sheshan shrine in Shanghai and is invoked assiduously by Christian families in the trials and hopes of daily life,” the pope said.
Catholics in mainland China have the tradition of making a pilgrimage every year to pray at the Sheshan shrine, the country’s most famous Marian shrine, especially around May 24.
In recent years, authorities have placed many obstacles in front of pilgrims and this year they have prevented any visit there during the month of May, citing the coronavirus pandemic even though amusement parks in the area are open.