Amid Clashes, "Violence" and "Deportations," China-Vatican Tensions Accelerate
The pontiff's plea came after a late November ordination of a bishop, chosen in defiance of Rome, for the state-supervised Patriotic Catholic Association -- the People's Republic's lone legal, public form of Catholicism. While the PA is said to have some 5 million members, an illegal "underground church" which aims to maintain communion with the Holy See is believed to number twice that.
With Rome especially irate over reports that several bishops were subject to government intimidation with the "aim of forcing them to participate and confer the episcopal ordination," the move ended a lengthy stretch of relative calm in Sino-Vatican relations.
For its part, the Vatican assuaged Beijing with the Pope's 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, the following year's appointment of a less outspoken bishop of Hong Kong, and a papal message that Taiwan's Catholics "need not fear" about being both "a faithful Catholic and a good citizen." In reciprocation, the Communist authorities collaborated with Rome to a historic degree on Mainland appointments, to such an extent that, at one point, the moves of the Beijing-named, Benedict-approved prelates were listed alongside the world's other moves of the day in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
Amid the new round of rising tensions, Benedict's call implied the Vatican's concern over a future development it viewed as an even greater act of aggression: a meeting of the Patriotic Association's bishops at which the body would elect a new national head to succeed Michael Fu Tieshan, the PA bishop of Beijing who died in April 2007 -- a month before Rome's rapproachment began in earnest with the Pope's Chinese letter.
While several prelates were said to have been "besieged" in their homes and placed under arrest in the assembly's run-up, as the PA summit began today AsiaNews reported that the "dozens" of bishops who were found have been "forcibly deported" to Beijing to attend it... and those who've fled are the subjects of a manhunt:
The Assembly opened today in Beijing on a low profile and is being shrouded in secrecy: it is impossible to contact anyone and not even [the official news agency] Xinhua is reporting on the event. The meeting should lead to the election of the national president of the Patriotic Association and president of the council of Chinese bishops, two bodies that are unacceptable to the Catholic Church because they aim to build a separate Church, detached from the pope. "It's just an election of a new round of leadership," said Liu Bainian, vice president and chairman of the PA Assembly. In fact, the gathering is the "sovereign body" of the official Chinese church in which bishops are a minority among Catholics and government representatives. Ecclesial decisions are made on the basis of rigged elections. Ahead of today's meeting, Liu Bainian had sent all participants clear indications of what to do and what to vote.Here, it's worth recalling that religious freedom as "pathway to peace" is the theme of the Vatican's next World Day of Peace, to be observed for the time on New Year's Day.
The Assembly has been postponed for at least four years because the official bishops, in obedience to the Holy See, have consistently refused to participate.
AsiaNews sources report that many bishops from different provinces, to avoid being dragged to Beijing, have gone into hiding or declared themselves too ill to attend. Others have been taken by government representatives and dragged against their will to the Assembly. Some bishops who knew they could not escape, agreed to come to Beijing, but decided not to celebrate the Assembly masses together, because of the presence of excommunicated bishops.
However the same sources claim that there are bishops who did not oppose any resistance. The Diocese of Beijing, in its newsletter, published two articles in honor of the event.
The most serious and obvious violence occurred in Hengshui (Hebei), where Mgr. Feng Xinmao was seized by about 100 police officers and government representatives, who fought for hours against the faithful and priests who were shielding their bishop in an attempt to ensure his freedom. One faithful was injured in the shoulder during the assault. In recent days, the bishop had been kept in isolation, away from his home. The faithful succeeded in snatching him from police control, to take him back to his residence. After a siege lasting hours, the bishop was again arrested and last night at 20:30, Mgr. Feng Xinmao was dragged to Beijing to attend the meeting. One of the faithful, weeping, as the bishop was escorted away, said: "Our poor bishop has no freedom."
Another prelate, Msgr. Li Lianghui Cangzhou (Hebei) has disappeared to escape the meeting in Beijing. The police has threatened the diocese, that if the bishop does not surrender, he will be hunted throughout the country like "a dangerous criminal."
While the traditional papal message for the church's Peace Feast has yet to emerge, the topic was B16's top-ranking agenda item for last month's pre-consistory consultation with the College of Cardinals, whose input will likely impact the WDP text's final product.