A series of arrests and crackdowns on underground churches in Hebei province raises concern over the threat of registration pushed by the Chinese authorities.
At the Diocese of Zhengding, which is ministered by the unofficial bishop Monsignor Julius Jia Zhiguo, was under constant persecution since last November, according to the Italy-based Vatican affiliated news agency AsiaNews. It was confirmed that Bishop Jia is still under detention, after he was arrested on Nov. 8, 2005.
According to some Chinese policemen, Bishop Jia’s long jail detention is a sign that the government has determined to destroy the Diocese of Zhengding and Hebei’s underground Church, AsiaNews reported. Hebei is the region with the greatest number of Catholics in China, and therefore Catholics loyal to the Vatican is often tightly controlled by some local officials in the region.
An internal police contact revealed to the priests in Hebei that "the government has made up its mind to destroy the underground church of Hebei."
"This time," said the contact obtained by AsiaNews, "the government wants to isolate him completely: you will become a flock without a shepherd."
Sources say that during the detention period, Bishop Jia is forced to join a "study session," in which authorities have attempted to convince bishops to join the official Chinese Catholic Church- Patriotic Association (PA). Usually, these "study sessions" last a few weeks. Despite rumors saying that Bishop Jia might be released during the Chinese New Year, he is still in prison until now.
Meanwhile, a few other priests in Bishop Jia’s diocese have also suffered from a series of arrests over recent months. According to AsiaNews, on November 12, Fr Yang Jianwei was arrested along with 10 seminarians. After 3 days in prison, 6 seminarians who were not from Baoding (Hebei) were set free and sent to their hometowns instead of back to the seminary. Fr Yang, Fan Fubin, Wang Yongliang, Wang Chunlei and Li Yutao are still detained at an unknown location.
Meanwhile, all the churches of the Zhengding Diocese have been closed and sealed off by police, therefore priests gather at homes for masses.
Yet, persecution has not stopped the unregistered Catholic church from growing. A priest who refused to provide the real name told AsiaNews that the participation in house churches has increased. A spirit of responsibility and service is growing among Catholics as well. Families and various priests help seminarians who are lacking a seminary to conduct their studies. This year 21 young men decided to enter the priesthood.
"Everything is in order. The government thought they could destroy us, but they were wrong. Catholics are even more determined and enthusiastic. Before I had to push young people to attend Mass, but now they go willingly," the anonymous priest added.
According to the latest International Religious Freedom Report prepared by the U.S. Department of State, the unofficial, Vatican-affiliated Catholic Church claims a membership larger than the 5 million persons registered with the official Catholic Church. Vatican officials have estimated that the country has as many as 10 million Catholics in both the official and unofficial churches while Chinese Catholic sources put the total number at approximately 8 million.