Police took underground prelate and collaborators to a hotel for "political sessions."
To Western ears, the Chinese city of Xinxiang might well be mistaken for the province of Xinjiang. But in spite of the similarity in spelling, differentiated only by one letter in Western transliteration, Xinxiang is some 3,000 miles to the east of Xinjiang and, culturally, vastly different.
But this past week, action taken by Chinese authorities gave Xinxiang, a city of some 5 million inhabitants in Henan Province, and Xinjiang, the autonomous region in China’s northwest, inhabited by Muslim Uighurs, something in common.
For while the People’s Republic of China has been undertaking a campaign of Sinicization of the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province, amounting to a reeducation crusade that has been marked by violations of religious liberty, authorities are also imposing that Sinicization on the local Catholic Church in Xinxiang.
“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,” reported the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCANews) on Monday. “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.”
Asia News, also on Monday, reported that Bishop Zhang and 10 priests were taken to a hotel where they are being held in solitary confinement and subjected to “political sessions.”
UCANews pointed out that Zhang was secretly made a bishop in 1991, because his appointment by the Vatican was not approved by the state-aligned Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Zhang has been arrested in the past, but this time authorities had new rules with which to charge him. Those rules, issued by the Chinese Communist Party, require clergy to register with the state and direct the Catholic laity to elect their bishops democratically.
UCANews pointed out that those precepts ignore a deal the Vatican entered into with Beijing in 2018 and which was renewed last fall, which “reportedly agreed on appointing bishops by mutual agreement, ending the conflict of the state appointing Catholic bishops without the Vatican’s mandate.” The news service continued:
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. …
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.
The underground bishop has been continuously under pressure from state authorities, UCANews said: “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.”
Last week’s arrests came after the diocese decided to use an abandoned factory building as a seminary. AsiaNews said that 13 students who were arrested “were handed over to their families and forbidden to continue studying theology.”
Media reports claimed about 100 policemen surrounded the building the day before Bishop Zhang was arrested. While the police deployment continues, a manhunt is 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.
Authorities have accused Christian groups of proselytizing and converting children by using charities and of violating a repressive clause in the new regulations.