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China removes unofficial community bishops on the cusp of Easter

MINDONG (SE): Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin, from the unofficial Church community in Mindong, was reported on April 10 as having been missing for four days.

AsiaNews reported local people as saying that he was last seen on April 6 on his way to pay a visit to the Religious Affairs Office in Fu’an.

His arrest was quickly followed by that of Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, from the unofficial community in Wenzhou, on April 12.

Neither bishop is recognised by the government, but Bishop Guo received a mandate from Pope Benedict XVI when he was ordained as coadjutor of his diocese in 2008, which gave him Church recognition as the official bishop following the death of his predecessor, Bishop Huang Shoucheng, on 30 July 2016.

Bishop Shao was recognised as the rightful bishop of his diocese after the death of his predecessor, Bishop Vincenzo Shu Weifang, on September 7 last year.

Reacting to concerns expressed by Catholics who do not know where the missing Bishop Gou has been taken, the head of Public Security in Ningde said that he needs to study and learn, and will remain in custody for 20 days for this purpose.

This has not allayed local concerns, as while there are few occasions when a diocese cannot function properly without a bishop, the liturgy of the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday (April 13) is one of them.

In the morning of that day, the Church calls on the priests of the diocese to concelebrate at a Mass during which they renew their vows of ordination and promise of loyalty to their local bishop.

Preventing Bishop Guo and Bishop Shao from being present at the Chrism Masses in their dioceses this year, removes the first opportunity either of them have had to be with their priests and people on this important date on the liturgical calendar as bishop, making the timing of the government particularly insidious and malicious.

It also means that they will not be able to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with their people.

Public Security has not said where Bishop Gou is doing his study, which probably means no one will be allowed to have contact with him, but friends of Bishop Shao were allowed to bring clothes for him, indicating that he may be away for a long time.

The situation in Mindong is further complicated, as the only government-recognised bishop remaining is one of the four ordained without a papal mandate in 2000 in response to the Vatican decision to declare October 1, the foundation day of the People’s Republic of China, the feast of the Chinese Martyrs.

Bishop Vincent Zhan Xilu seems to be a sad and lonely man, mostly shunned by the Catholics in the area. When three priests under his jurisdiction were ordained, the ceremony was carried out by the neighbouring Bishop Joseph Cai Bingrui, from Xiamen.

Local Catholics say that this was to avoid having more people shun the other five priests that are already working with him. Nevertheless, more trouble erupted, as the Vatican-recognised Bishop Huang had not been consulted or informed about what was going on.

This clash culminated in parishioners barricading themselves inside a church that Bishop Zhan, with the backing of local government officials, tried to take possession of in order to install one of his own priests in place of the incumbent from the unofficial community.

When the Vatican alluded to illegitimately ordained bishops it may be prepared to recognise in some way, Bishop Zhan’s name was not among them.

It probably baulked at the prospect, as Bishop Guo had already been named as the rightful bishop.

In the diocese, the prevailing view is that Bishop Guo is being brainwashed to get him to join and submit to the authority of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Catholics in Wenzhou believe that their bishop has been kidnapped for the same reason, as it is believed that the Vatican is pushing for the unofficial community bishops to be included in the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China, which Beijing has been taking steps to prevent, saying that they are politically unreliable.

Beijing is now insisting on membership in the Patriotic Association as a precondition to being part of any official body.

It is believed that a round of talks previously set for February has been postponed and not rescheduled.

Bishop Shao was arrested in Shenzhen in September 2006, together with Father Jiang Sunian, after returning from a pilgrimage to Europe that included a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.

The two priests were imprisoned for leaving China without an officially issued passport.

The then-Father Shao was sentenced to nine months and Father Jiang was given 11 months in prison, because he was a repeat offender, due to a previous arrest for printing religious books.

Some commentators say that Beijing is trying to pressure the Vatican into accepting its conditions on the bishops’ conference by arresting the two bishops from the unofficial community.

Membership in the diocese of Mindong is mostly within the unofficial community, with more than 80,000 out of the 90,000-strong Catholic community.

It is highly organised and capable, with over 45 priests, 200 sisters, 300 consecrated lay women and hundreds of lay catechists.

Bishop Guo is well liked and on good terms with people in both the official and unofficial communities.

But for the Patriotic Association, he is an humiliation, since the Holy See has confirmed Bishop Guo as the successor to Bishop Huang as bishop of the whole diocese, including those communities registered with the government.

Some local priests say that the Patriotic Association is brawling for a confrontation with the unofficial community, as two years ago police in Fu’an demolished an unofficial church that was under construction, but in view of the community’s size, it has mostly left them alone without causing too many problems.

“It is impossible for the bishop to join the Patriotic Association. He will never do it,” one priest said. However, this probably means that he will not come back to lead the diocese. For this reason, people in Mindong are asking for special prayers for their bishop.

Fifty-nine-year-old Bishop Guo was ordained as the coadjutor of Mindong on 28 December 2008.

He became a priest in 1984 and then taught in seminaries and served as the diocesan economic administrator. However, his most important work has been sustaining and encouraging men and women in their respective religious vocations.

He has also encouraged the young seminarians to study in public universities and colleges.

As a priest of the unofficial community, he spent time in prison from 1990 to 1992, 1993 and 1994, then in 1996.

In the late 1990s, he was briefly appointed as apostolic administrator of the diocese of Wenzhou.

Bishop Zhao is 54 and became a bishop in 2007 in Wenzhou, an area with about the same Catholic population as Mindong, but evenly divided between official and unofficial Church population.

Bishop Shao has worked hard at achieving reconciliation, but local people say that the government operates to continue to keep the two groups divided.

He has also spent time in prison and upon the death of his predecessor, he was whisked away by the authorities for a lengthy familiarisation tour in the north of China to prevent him being present at his funeral.

UCAN reported that a similar situation exists in Xuanhua in Hebei province, as Bishop Cui Tai has repeatedly been detained since 2008 and mostly only allowed to return home for the Lunar New Year and the Moon Festival, and this is because security officials like to go on holidays at that time of year so there is no one to guard him.

At the end of the holiday period, they simply pick him up again and take him back to detention, but this means that there are now three bishops from the unofficial community missing in action.

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