Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong has called on Beijing to end the persecution of Christians and allow religious freedom, insisting that those who keep silent about such matters are guilty of being "accomplices."
"Facing all this persecution, we cannot take it for granted. We cannot stand idly. If we keep silent, we are accomplices," Cardinal Zen told a group of about 100 people who attended a service in front of China's Hong Kong liaison office over the weekend, according to UCA News.
The Cardinal's message coincided with the conclusion of a petition campaigning for Pope Francis to pray for religious freedom and an end to religious persecution in China.
The campaign, headed by Hong Kong's diocesan Justice and Peace Commission (JPC), asked Francis to urge the Chinese government to stop removing crosses and to "inquire about the situation of... two bishops in your communications with the Chinese authorities".
"We hope the Pope can include the cross-removal campaign and the two missing bishops in his prayers on the prayer day," Or Yan-yan, project officer at JPC, told ucanews.com.
The two bishops are thought to be Bishop James Su Zhimin, 84, and Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang, 95.
"These two bishops... have been imprisoned for over half of their lives. They have been forcibly disappeared for 18 and 15 years," the petition, signed by over 800, states.
While China claims to grant freedom of religion, the Communist government has expressed concern over the rapid growth of Christianity in the region, causing Open Doors USA to place it 33rd on its World Watch List of countries where believers face the most persecution. The Pew Research Center puts the number of Christians in China at 67 million, 58 million of whom are Protestant and 9 million Catholic.
In an effort to stunt such growth, since 2014, government officials in the In Zhejiang province have removed more than 1,200 crosses from churches and other buildings, citing regulations on illegal structures. China Aid notes that the removal of crosses is part of an ongoing "beautification" campaign known as "Three Rectifications and One Demolition." In addition, 500 activists and lawyers who opposed the cross demolition campaign have been detained in the last year, with many still imprisoned.
Earlier this month, China's President Xi Jinping warned that the Communist country must be on guard against foreign infiltration through religion and stop "extremists" from spreading their ideology.
"We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means and prevent ideological infringement by extremists," President Xi said at a Beijing conference on religions attended by top leaders, according to the South China Morning Post.
He added that all religious groups must submit to the leadership of the ruling Communist Party, and charged that the internet was a key propaganda front to promote the Party's stand on religion.
"In no way should religions interfere with government administration, judiciary and education," he said. "[Religious groups] should merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture, abide by Chinese laws and regulations, and devote themselves to China's reform and opening-up drive and socialist modernization to contribute to the realization of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation."