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Police release detained self-styled bishop

HONG KONG (UCAN): The authorities in China appear to be worried about the appearance of a maverick bishop in Zhending and have gone to some lengths in order to stop him from becoming too popular or spreading his influence too far.

The self-styled bishop from an unofficial community in Hebei province, 58-year-old Father Paul Dong Guanhwa, was detained by the authorities in early December.

While the news of his arrest broke when a message was posted on his blog on December 9 saying that security officers had taken him away at midnight and his whereabouts were unknown, he was released on December 14 with a rap over the knuckles for ordaining at least one bishop and a strict command not to go around ordaining any more.

However, he responded that this is not likely to happen, as in all probability no one is going to apply to him now that they know how closely he is being monitored.

The self-styled bishop had advertised on his blog that he was available to ordain any priests,  who feel the same way he does about the Vatican-Beijing talks, as bishops.

The police verified that he had indeed laid hands on at least one priest, Father Zhang Guoqing.

They told him that they had learned of this by monitoring his mobile phone.

Father Dong said that he was picked up by a group of six men, including one from the Religious Affairs Bureau and another from the United Front Work Department. He described the other four as security officers.

“I told them to detain me properly if you want and don’t say that it is sightseeing. However, they argued that they just wanted to take me to travel and they did not use handcuffs on me,” he related.

“They kept me in hostels, but allowed me to take walks outside if I wanted. But they tracked me everywhere I went, even when I went to the washroom. Two men slept next to me,” Father Dong continued.

He said that the police told him that he had been detained because he had spoken with foreign journalists.

His arrest occurred several weeks after he gave interviews to the British Broadcasting Corporation and CNN International, where he said he didn’t support negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing, especially in the area of the appointment of bishops.

Father Dong said he also believed he was detained for refusing to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

A Catholic in Zhengding said the authorities use these tactics to persuade people to accept government management. “If the person doesn’t accept, the government detains them in a secret place.”

The person cited the example of a priest who was taken in a similar manner a decade ago. “Soon after he returned home, he joined the Patriotic Association.”

Father Dong took one phone call three days after his arrest and confirmed that security officers had taken him away. “I don’t even know where I am now,” he said.

The line went dead when he said he believed he was detained because he refused to join the Patriotic Association and that he didn’t want to be managed by the authorities. He could not be reached again.

Prior to his arrest in early December, Father Dong wrote on his blog that government officials had offered to help him if he wanted to become a bishop with dual approval from the government and the Vatican.

“I said, ‘I would rather be illegitimate than have dual approval.’ It is fine as long as our episcopal ordination is valid,” he wrote.

Father Dong told the National Public Radio in the United States of America on December 23 that even though he has recognition from neither the government nor the Vatican, “All my parishioners are fine with it. They can tell what is real and what is not. They are seeking the true spirit.”

There are around 1,000 people in his parish, but he says that if an agreement is ever made between the Vatican and Beijing, then he will do whatever he is asked to do by the Holy See.

He announced on May 22 last year that he had been secretly ordained a bishop 11 years previously. He made his status public when he wore his mitre and carried a crosier at Mass on September 11, a person from Zhengding, an unofficial community stronghold in a province with about one million Catholics, said.

Catholics in Hebei believe Father Dong was arrested because Christmas was coming and the official Church community was about to convene the Ninth National Congress of Catholic Representatives after Christmas.

To date, Beijing has had the final say. But what is clear is that both Beijing and the Vatican seem to want to come to an agreement.

“In the past, the Vatican seemed more eager to talk, but now the Chinese side is more interested,” Ren Yanli, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, says, adding that “China wants to improve its international reputation.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Ian Johnson, says in a forthcoming book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, that for the Vatican, this is primarily about those who are already with the Church.

“It is a way to help Catholics in China so that they’re part of a legitimate Church,” Johnson says. “And I think from Beijing’s point of view, it is a way to make sure this small, but perhaps influential group of Chinese is under some sort of structure the Party could feel comfortable with. They don’t like having an underground Church. They want to bring everybody into the fold.”

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