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A body that reveals no answers
HONG KONG (SE): A Mass was celebrated on December 30 at Tseung Kwan O parish in Hong Kong for the late Father Wei Heiping, whose body was found on November 8 in the Fen River, a tributary to the Yangtze River that runs through Shanxi province in northern China.
Organised by the Justice and Peace Commission, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun was joined at the Mass for Father Wei by Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing and several priests from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, Maryknoll and the Columban Mission Society, as well the local diocese.
Around 230 people gathered to pray for the intentions of the priest who died a lonely death in unknown circumstances and at an unknown location.
Father Wei, also known as Father Yu in some circles, was ordained for the diocese of Ningxia for the unofficial Church community in 2004.
He was born in Shanxi and attended Baoding Seminary in Hebei, which is run by the unofficial Church community. He left the seminary in 1997 and in 2000 became the first webmaster of Tainzhujiao Ziaxian, a popular portal that put up news casts from the Vatican almost in real time.
Because of his linguistic expertise and the time difference between Rome and China, he was able to translate articles and announcements from the Vatican and put them online while most of the world was sleeping.
However, the site was shut down by the authorities and, although it reopened in 2003, Father Wei always maintained he had nothing to do with the revamped outlet.
After ordination he did further studies at the Pontifical Bolivarian University in Colombia and later in Spain at the Pontifical University of Salamanca. He earned a master’s degree in Church social teaching and one in canon law, before returning to China in 2007.
Few in Church circles believe the official police verdict that his death was the result of suicide and the circumstances of his disappearance remain shrouded in mystery.
The former bishop of Hong Kong said at the memorial Mass, “Father Wei has been dead for some time, but even though security forces in China carefully note everything that happens, it cannot solve the mystery of his death. Nevertheless, they have been quick to pronounce that he committed suicide.”
People close to Father Wei at the time of his death said that they could not believe that he would take his own life. However, they added that they will never know, as even a postmortem in the current circumstances could not be trusted.
A priest from the unofficial Church community in China said that among his priest friends, Father Wei is the second one to have died in a suspicious manner in the past year or so.
Although he said that it is impossible to be sure, he maintains it is difficult not to believe that both have been killed for some devious or spurious reason.
Photographs of Father Wei’s body circulating in Hong Kong show marks of bruising, which has sparked speculation that he may have been beaten before his body was dumped in the river.
But Cardinal Zen cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying that the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.
“Because there is no answer to the riddle of his death we cannot speculate, but at the same time, we cannot believe the answer that we have been given either,” he said.
The cardinal added that he knows that the security forces in China had been warning Father Wei not to approach him, but stressed, “I want to put it on record. We did not meet.”
Father Wei set out to make an overnight journey to Xingchen in north-eastern Liaoning province on November 6 and was last seen boarding a bus for the railway station. Friends said that they spoke to him on the telephone later that day, but he failed to arrive at his destination on the following afternoon.
UCAN reported at the time that the last contact with him was a text message sent to a sister in his home diocese of Ningxia. It contained one Chinese character, bei, which could be interpreted to mean farewell.
The following day his body was found in the river. He was 40-years-old.
Cardinal Zen described Father Wei as young and talented, saying that he had done much for education in the Church and served those who are marginalised in modern society with great dedication.
He had been involved in the work of formation with lay people and catechists through the Emmanuel Institute and at the time of his death was on his way to attend a seminar on catechetical methodology, an area in which he had much expertise.
Cardinal Zen prayed that the contribution to the life of the Catholic people of China made by Father Wei will bear fruit, so that his death will not be without purpose and it may contribute to achieving a greater freedom of belief and freedom of expression in the Middle Kingdom.
However, he admitted that currently there are few signs of hope, saying that even the recent dialogue between the Holy See and Beijing will not achieve anything so long as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association remains in control of Church activity.
“But we cannot give up religious freedom just for an agreement with Beijing,” the cardinal said pointedly. “But like the Church of the early ages, we must wait. Father Wei had words of wisdom for the Vatican,” he continued, pointing out that he used to say, “While we are waiting we cannot stop doing what we need to do.”
Cardinal Zen explained that since the Patriotic Association controls Church activity, it cannot be free, any more than the Chinese people can be free to express themselves so long as they are so closely monitored by state security forces.
Without freedom of speech, there can be no freedom of belief. The two are intricately tied together and Cardinal Zen said that he believes there has been no change in the regime in Beijing in this regard.
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