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Bishop and priests arrested days before Pope’s annual prayer for China

Two days after the bishop of a Chinese missionary territory was reportedly arrested along with several priests and seminarians, Pope Francis urged the Church to pray for Chinese Christians, as he does annually ahead of the May 24 Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians.

“Tomorrow the Catholic faithful [of China]l celebrate the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians and the heavenly patron of their great country,” Pope Francis said Sunday.

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“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, said Francis. “How good and how necessary it is that the members of a family and of a Christian community are ever more united in love and in faith!”

“Therefore,” Francis continued, “I invite you to accompany with fervid prayer the Christian faithful in China, our dearest brothers and sisters, whom I hold in the depth of my heart. May the Holy Spirit, protagonist of the Church’s mission in the world, guide them and help them to be bearers of the happy message, witnesses of goodness and charity, and builders of justice and peace in their country.”

The pope’s prayers came just hours after reports that a bishop, seven priests, and ten seminarians were arrested in China in an apparent crackdown on the underground Church. Francis did not make mention of the arrests.

On Saturday, Asia News reported that Bishop Zhang Weizhu had been arrested on May 21 in the province of Xianxiang, one day after the apparent arrest of seven Catholic priests and ten seminarians in a raid on an underground seminary housed in a factory in Hebei province reportedly belonging to a local Catholic.

Xianxiang is an apostolic prefecture, a missionary territory under the authority of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in Rome; while in many respects it functions like a diocese, it does not have that designation because the local Church is not sufficiently established.

Bishop Zhang, 63, was consecrated in 1991 as bishop of the prefecture. In 2000, a second bishop, Bishop Joseph Li Lian Gui, was consecrated for the territory. 

While both are listed as active in the diocese, it is not clear which is the diocesan bishop, or if one of the bishops is an auxiliary or coadjutor to the other. Both were consecrated in communion with Rome, and Bishop Zhang is known to have been previously imprisoned by Chinese authorities. 

Senior clerical sources in China confirmed the substance of the Asia News account to The Pillar on Monday, noting that Xianxiang is in Henan Province and the arrests were made in Hebei Province, where the factory is believed to be.

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The situation of underground and formerly underground Catholic bishops and priests in China remains tense, following the renewal of the controversial Vatican-China deal in October last year. That deal was meant to regularize the situation of the underground Catholic Church in China, and unite it with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the state-sponsored Communist church which was in formal schism with Rome until the 2018 deal was signed.

Many underground priests, and some bishops, have refused to register with the CPCA, citing the requirement that they acknowledge Communist Party authority over the Church and its teachings. 

The Vatican’s Secretariat of State issued unsigned guidance in 2019, stating that “the Holy See understands and respects the choice of those who, in conscience, decide that they are unable to register under the current conditions.” Bishops and priests who refuse to register have been subject to systematic harassment, arrests and detention.

In February, the Communist government issued new rules for religious communities on the mainland, tightening Communist control on religious practice in the country, and doubling down on the policy of “Sinicization” of religion in China. 

The regulations came into force on May 1. While clerical sources in China told The Pillar in February that many of the provisions were aimed at Buddhist or Protestant communities in China, and not specifically at undermining the Catholic Church, the rules did contain tougher measures which apply to the underground Church.

Clergy are forbidden to “organize, host, or participate in unauthorized religious activities held outside the authorized places of religious activities,” and are required to register with the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

The new regulations also describe the mechanism for appointing bishops for Chinese dioceses, including that candidates be proposed and agreed by the Catholic bishops’ conference of China, and then sent to the CPCA for approval. No explicit mention of the Vatican-China deal was made in the new regulations, leading many China watchers to see it as an abrogation of the accord. In February, senior Catholic clergy in China told The Pillar that remained in tact from China’s perspective, with Vatican nominations expected to come through the bishops’ conference.

However, even if the rules theoretically leave the provisions of the Vatican-China deal intact, there remain questions about the deal’s effectiveness in the first place.

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China watchers have noted that while the 2018 deal aimed to provide for the smooth appointment of episcopal candidates, there has been effective gridlock on naming bishops to China’s dozens of vacant sees. 

At the time of the deal’s renewal in October, only two bishops had been appointed under the new process. 

Since then, in November, the CPCA announced the consecration of a third bishop, Thomas Chen Tianhao, for the Diocese of Qingdao. The consecration was announced by the state-sponsored Church on Nov. 23, with photographs of the event, but the appointment was not announced by the Vatican, and Chen’s name was not listed in the Holy See’s regular bollettino of appointments. 

Although the Vatican press director issued a statement the following day recognizing Chen as “the third bishop appointed and ordained in the regulatory framework of the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China on the appointment of bishops,” questions remain about whether the Holy See had prior notice of the event, or if they had been made to accept the consecration as a fait accompli

Speaking in October, shortly before the Vatican-China deal was renewed, Cardinal Parolin said that the agreement was intended “to help the local Churches to enjoy conditions of greater freedom, autonomy and organization, so that they can dedicate themselves to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel and contributing to the integral development of the person and society.”

At the time of the deal’s renewal, Parolin was asked about the persecution of Christians in China and responded “But what persecutions?”

In the same address Sunday, Francis mentioned political unrest in Columbia, where government crackdowns of pro-democracy protests and the coronavirus pandemic continue to create a humanitarian crisis. The pope also mentioned the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the eruption of a volcano has forced thousands to flee the city of Goma. 

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