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China government-Church standoff over bishop's burial

Church refuses to perform burial, security officials round up clergy
China government-Church standoff over bishop's burial

Church leaders announced their refusal to bury Bishop Paul Liu Jinghe during his memorial service at Tangshan Cathedral on Tuesday

Published: December 18, 2013 09:27 AM GMT
Updated: December 18, 2013 04:15 PM GMT

Tangshan Diocese has announced it will not bury deceased Bishop Paul Liu Jinghe until the government returns a former Church cemetery, prompting officials to take away clergy for questioning on Wednesday.

In an escalating standoff between Church and state, the announcement delaying the burial was made at Bishop Liu’s memorial service at Tangshan Cathedral on Tuesday, prompting two minutes of applause from the 3,000 people gathered.

In response, officials came on Wednesday morning and took clergy away to offices of the State Administration for Religious Affairs in their respective parishes.

The mobile phones of all priests and nuns in Tangshan, east of Beijing, are now being monitored, said a source who declined to be named.

The disagreement over the cemetery has escalated following the death of Bishop Liu aged 92 on December 11, a year after he suffered a heart attack which had left him bedridden.

Before his death, the bishop had demanded to be buried at Lulong Cemetery, the final resting place of the diocese’s first bishop, Ernst Geurts of Holland, who died in 1940.

The site became a church cemetery after priests and nuns were later buried there but it was wrecked during political turmoil in the 1950s, shortly after the Communists took power.

Since then, it has been used as farmland, and in 1993 – with the government’s permission – Bishop Liu reburied Geurts and other clergy in a corner of the 2.6 hectare site.

The late bishop had demanded the return of the site several times during his lifetime. After he died, the diocese began negotiations with authorities but eventually rejected an offer of 200,000 yuan (US$33,000) to buy an alternative plot to bury Bishop Liu.

It remains unknown why the authorities are reluctant to return it to the Church but, following the religious purges that lasted until the early 1980s, the government has typically only returned dedicated places of worship. To return the cemetery, authorities would have to compensate people who farm the site.

Church members are taking turns to guard the bishop’s body inside Tangshan Cathedral as they wait for a solution to the dispute.

Bishop Liu was one of three priests who survived the devastating 7.8-magnitude Tangshan earthquake which killed more than 240,000 people in July 1976.

Illicitly ordained without papal mandate in 1981, Liu was finally recognized by the pope in 2008, retiring two years later.

The elderly bishop was remembered for refusing to join an illicit episcopal ordination without papal mandate in 2010, with one Church source quoting him as saying at the time: “Times are different now. At this age, I could not do anything against my faith again.”

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