For over a month, four priests of the underground (unofficial) community of Zhangjiakou (Hebei) have been kept in a secret place, subjected to indoctrination and brainwashing to force them to join the Patriotic Association (PA). Despite the agreement between China and the Vatican, with which Beijing recognizes the Pope as head of the Catholic Church, the PA demands that priests adhere to the idea of an “independent” and “autonomous” Church (from the Holy See).
The four priests are: Fr. Zhang Guilin and Fr. Wang Zhong of the ancient Diocese of Xiwanzi; Fr. Zhang He and Fr. Su Guipeng of the ancient Diocese of Xuanhua. The constant requests of the faithful and the mother of one of them for information has only meet with evasive responses from government. What is most striking is that the four priests are known for their pastoral commitment and for their charity towards the needy and destitute. Indeed, one of them organizes literacy courses for adults and foreign languages for young people in the parish. This is what a local Catholic writes to us.
Thanks to the provisional agreement between China and the Vatican on 22 September, the Chinese government recognized the role of the Pope in the Catholic Church for the first time. On the surface, this agreement created a sufficient condition for reconciliation between the “underground” Church and the “official” Church in China.
The increasing number of optimists consider that with this agreement the government will be able to offer more freedom to Chinese Catholics in their life of faith. But the real situation is the exact opposite, as the faithful of some regions are experimenting.
In over 50 days since the signing of the agreement, the Chinese government, in particular the United Front Department of Labor (UF) and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), have launched a new campaign to “convert” the priests illegal. This means that they must participate compulsorily in courses organized by the government, to be in line with the “United Front” and “brainwashing” on religious affairs.
According to one priest’s account, the current conditions are the same as those of previous years: that is, one must accept the leadership of the Patriotic Association and agree with the principle of independence and autonomy.
The “underground” priests are forcefully brought to concelebrate with the “official” bishops led by the government and then photographed. In this wave of “conversion of underground priests”, Hebei is the most influenced region because of the many faithful – over a million Catholics.
Fr Zhang Gulilin and Fr. Wang Zhong were taken away on October 11 by government officials to attend a training course for 5/6 days. But now it’s been more than a month, the two priests are still “studying”, the other priests and the faithful of the diocese are very worried.
Fr. Zhang Guilin was taken away by local officials from the United Front Department of Labor. On the same day, Fr. Wang Zhong was also taken away from his parish.
The officials took them first to Zhangjiakou, then to Chang Zhou, to Shijiazhuang, to Baoding and finally to Beijing to have them meet with several official bishops and convince them to accept the government conditions, collect the Patriotic Association card and then enter the official Church. This is the only way they can be formalized and recognized by the government. But the two priests reject this proposal. Their belief is based on the of Benedict XVI’s Letter to Catholic of China (2007), which forbids participation in the Patriotic Association.
The government had promised to release the priests on the evening of the sixth day, and the faithful were waiting for them too. But Fr. Zhang was taken away again; Fr. Wang, after a few days in the parish, was again kidnapped.