Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xinxiang was arrested on May 21 last year. (Photo: Bitter Winter/Weibo)
A Vatican-approved Chinese bishop remains in detention more than one year after his arrest for allegedly violating the communist country’s repressive regulations on religious affairs.
His arrest came a day after police arrested 10 priests and an unknown number of seminarians from a Catholic seminary in the diocese that was set up in an abandoned factory building.
About a year ago, authorities in Xinxiang shut down Catholic schools and kindergartens in line with a government ban on education by religious groups.
All those arrested were accused of violating China’s regulations on religious affairs and subjected to “political lessons” in detention, media reports said
The priests and seminarians were released after brief detention but remain under surveillance, while the seminary is still closed.
Since his secret ordination with a Vatican mandate in 1991, Bishop Zhang was under constant pressure and barred from carrying out his duties as bishop
Bishop Zhang, 63, remains detained and his whereabouts are unknown.
Bitter Winter, a magazine covering religious liberty and human rights, reported that Bishop Zhang has been long targeted and oppressed by officials of the Chinese Community Party (CCP) for not bowing to pressure to join the CCP-controlled Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) and Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).
The bishop is reportedly among “conscientious objectors” who oppose the 2018 secretive Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of Catholic bishops, which was renewed in 2020.
Since signing the deal, Chinese authorities have intensified their crackdown on underground churches controlled by the Vatican amid renewed pressure to join state-run church bodies.
A source told Bitter Winter that the Vatican had asked the Chinese regime to release Bishop Zhang, but the authorities responded by saying the bishop’s crimes were serious, so he must remain in detention.
Since his secret ordination with a Vatican mandate in 1991, Bishop Zhang was under constant pressure and barred from carrying out his duties as bishop. He was arrested on several occasions but later released.
Catholics in Xinxiang have expressed concerns for the bishop, especially about his health. Shortly before his arrest, the bishop had surgery for cancer.
“While in previous years the communist authorities tolerated clerics who were not officially recognized by the communist government, they are now increasingly clamping down on them"
Religious groups including the Catholic Church faced a new clampdown after the CCP approved and implemented repressive new regulations on religious affairs in May last year. Among other things, the regulations state that Catholic bishops must be approved and ordained by the state-sanctioned bishops' conference.
It warrants that Christian clergy must support the CCP leadership and must regularly apply for recertification to carry out their duties. Clergy are allowed to run religious activities, including seminaries, only in government-registered and controlled institutions.
The arrest of Bishop Zhang and others in Xinxiang triggered condemnation from across the world, with French Catholic bishops and Christian groups like International Christian Concern issuing statements to express their concerns.
Observers noted that the crackdown in Xinxiang signaled a new dimension in religious persecution in China, especially against formerly independent churches.
“While in previous years the communist authorities tolerated clerics who were not officially recognized by the communist government, they are now increasingly clamping down on them,” Katharina Wenzel-Teuber, a Germany-based China expert, told Catholic news agency KNA.
“Since the new decree came into force, priests who were members of the Chinese underground church are under great pressure to register with the official, state-recognized patriotic church.”