BEIJING (AP) - A senior official in China's state-sanctioned Catholic church on Saturday denied his association was cracking down on churches loyal to the Vatican following an unconfirmed media report that nine priests were arrested this week.
AsiaNews, a missionary news service close to the Vatican, reported Friday that nine priests from the underground Catholic church in north China's Hebei province were arrested by police Wednesday as they gathered to pray near the city of Baoding.
The report called the alleged arrests part of a campaign by the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association to subdue the underground church in Hebei, a traditional stronghold of Catholic sentiment in northern China.
AsiaNews said the province has some 1.5 million Catholics, most belonging to the unofficial church.
Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the association, said he had heard of no such arrests and denied there was a campaign under way to crush the church, which is loyal to the Pope.
"It would be impossible for our association to crack down on illegal or underground churches," Liu said. "China has always provided education and assistance for underground priests."
Liu said underground churches that violate the law would be dealt with by police, not the Catholic Patriotic Association.
China's government bars Catholics from having contact with the Vatican and allows worship only in government-monitored churches. Millions remain loyal to the Pope and worship in secret, but priests and members of their congregations are frequently detained and harassed.
A man who answered the phone at the Hebei Public Security Bureau said he had not heard of any arrests. He refused to give his name and hung up. The phone rang unanswered at the Baoding Public Security Bureau.
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