China Frees Priests Jailed Over Vatican Trip

Aug 30, 2007 06:22 AM EDT

China has freed two underground Catholic priests jailed for flying to the Vatican on false passports, a Hong Kong-based group said on Thursday.

Shao Zhumin and Jiang Sunian, from Wenzhou in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, were arrested shortly after returning from a September 2006 trip to Europe during which they met Vatican officials in Rome.

A Wenzhou court in April sentenced Shao and Jiang to nine and 11 months in prison respectively on the charge of "illegally leaving the country", the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said in a faxed statement.

"Shao was released one month early in May because of illness and Jiang was freed on Aug. 24 after completing his term," the group said, quoting their families.

China's 12 million Catholics are split between an official Church sanctioned by the state and an underground Church that rejects government ties and says it answers only to Rome.

Shao and Jiang had to go abroad with false passports because the government would not issue passports to senior members of the underground church, the centre said.

Both priests had previously been arrested or detained, most recently in 2005, the U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation said in September. Jiang was detained in 1999 for publishing hymn books and sentenced to six years in prison.

China has had no diplomatic relations with the Vatican since 1951, two years after the atheist Communist Party swept to power in a revolution. The appointment of bishops remains a thorny issue despite recent moves towards rapprochement.