Chinese officials are refusing to reveal the whereabouts of the body of 94-year-old Bishop Cosma Shi Enxiang, who spent more than half his life in prison due to his Christian beliefs.
According to an independent Catholic news service, Bishop Shi had not been seen since his arrest on April 13, 2001 at his niece's home in Beijing. He was reportedly held without charge or due process.
During his captivity, which took place in an unknown location, the Bishop's family members regularly asked authorities for information, but were always ignored. On January 30, an employee of the city of Baoding, the village chief of Shizhuang, questioned again by family, revealed that the elderly Bishop had died.
"We were informed by Baoding city government officials on Friday morning but they did not say when he died exactly or the cause of his death," his great-niece Shi Chunyan, 42, said.
"We are now waiting for the prelate, whether it be his body or ashes, to be returned to Shizhuang, our hometown, before we decide what to do next," she added.
However, when the family approached the local authorities to recover the bishop's remains, they were told that the official who had told them he was dead had been drunk, or misinformed.
"The public has a right to know what's going on," said Joseph Kung, who runs the Cardinal Kung Foundation in Stamford, Conn., named after an uncle, Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, the late bishop of Shanghai. "I am not sure whether he is alive or dead."
As previously reported by the Gospel Herald, Bishop Shi was imprisoned for a total of 40 years because he refused to recognize the state's Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The priest was officially ordained in 1947, but was imprisoned several years later when Chinese dictator Mao Zedong demanded Chinese Catholics sever ties with the Vatican and close all church doors. From 1957 to 1980, he was forced to do hard labor first at a labor camp in Heilongjiang province, then in coal mines in Shanxi province. The Bishop was rearrested in 1989 and released in 1993. His final detention, which took place in an undisclosed location, lasted 14 years
Experts believe the Communist government refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the Bishop's body for fear of possible demonstrations at his funeral. The death of another underground bishop, Joseph Fan Xueyan of Baoding in 1992, led to 30,000 attending his funeral and demanding an investigation into his torture and death.
The New York Times reports that Catholic leaders in Hong Kong are appealing to Beijing to free another Bishop, Su Zhimin, who has been detained without charge since 1997, and to release Bishop Shi's body for burial if he has died.
On Saturday, the diocese plans a protest march to the Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong to demand that the authorities release information on their whereabouts.
"Bishop Shi and Bishop Su sacrificed themselves," the leaders wrote in a letter. "They've endured lifelong sufferings for the sake of religious freedom. We pay high respect to their great souls!"