Washington D.C., Jul 30, 2020 / 01:30 pm (CNA).- The fate of a long-imprisoned Catholic bishop in China was the focus of a congressional hearing on Thursday, amid growing concern he may have died in the custody of the Communist government.
“President Xi Jinping: Where is Bishop Su, and what have you done to him?” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-chair of the commission, asked in his opening remarks of a July 30 hearing of the bipartisan Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
“What have you done in secret to this extraordinary man of God? And why does a powerful dictatorship fear peaceful men and women of faith and virtue?”
Bishop James Su Zhimin of the Diocese of Baoding, in China’s Hebei province, was arrested by Chinese authorities in 1997. He was last seen by family at a hospital in 2003 while he was in government custody.
According to Bishop Su’s nephew, Chinese officials have reportedly asked the Vatican to appoint a new bishop of Baoding, UCA News reported on July 22. Their preferred candidate is Coadjutor Bishop Francis An Shuxi, a member of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-sanctioned church.
The news of the request has caused concern that Bishop Su has died in government custody, although there has been no official report of his death.
On Thursday, Smith and other religious freedom advocates drew attention to Bishop Su’s plight.
Nury Turkel, a new commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and a Uyghur rights advocate, said that the commission “is deeply saddened by the recent reports that Bishop Su may have died during his unjust imprisonment.”
The news comes during the “worst persecution of religious groups in China in decades,” Turkel said.
Smith related how he met Bishop Su in person during a 1994 visit to China, noting the bishop’s “extraordinary gentleness, strength, courage, and a peace that surpassed all understanding.” Bishop Su prayed for his persecutors at a Mass he offered, Smith said.
The bishop was detained by government authorities before Smith’s delegation even left the country, Smith said. Su was subsequently released, only to be arrested again in 1997 after refusing to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-controlled church. Until a provisional agreement was signed between the Vatican and China in 2018, bishops of the CPCA were deemed to have broken communion with Rome and were considered schismatic.
Bishop Su has been seen only once since then, by family members at a hospital in 2003 while he was still in government custody.
In total, the bishop has been detained for around 40 years, Smith said, as he had endured imprisonment in forced labor camps before his 1997 arrest. Bishop Su had been beaten, starved, and tortured in the camps, but he still prayed for mercy for his persecutors, Smith said, adding that “his faith in Jesus Christ absolutely amazed me.”
The 2018 Vatican-China agreement, which ceded a measure of control over episcopal appointments in China to the Communist government, is set to expire in September. Negotiations to extend that deal could determine the nomination of Su’s successor and influence the current treatment of Catholics in China.
According to report, released July 28, a Chinese state-sponsored group has targeted the Vatican and other Catholic organizations with cyberattacks to gain an advantage in negotiations and monitor the Holy See’s communications with the Diocese of Hong Kong.
“We urge the Vatican to make determining his [Bishop Su] fate a priority during any ongoing negotiation with the Chinese government, and to refuse to recognize any replacement bishop for Baoding city in Hubei province,” Turkel said of negotiations between the Vatican and China on a renewal of the agreement.
If Bishop Su is dead, then the “choosing of his replacement could occur under the terms of this agreement,” Dr. Tom Farr said of the current agreement. Farr is the president of the Religious Freedom Institute.
While the deal was meant to bring about the unification of the CPCA with the underground Church in China loyal to Rome, Christians have continued to be harassed and persecuted, and at least 50 mainland dioceses in China are without bishops due to gridlock in new appointments.
The resulting situation for many underground Catholics in China has been one of immense tension, Farr said.
“I think they are being pressured in an extraordinary sense,” Farr said, in that they are pressed by the government to join the CCPA but also “they feel abandoned by the Holy See.”
At the same time, anywhere from 800,000 to 1.8 million Uyghurs in the country’s northwestern province of Xinjiang are estimated to have been detained in a system of more than 1,300 camps. Consistent accounts have emerged from the region, detailing anti-religious indoctrination, torture, forced sterilization, and other abuses committed against those in camps.
Many Uyghurs have reportedly been forced to work in factories or agriculture inside and outside of the detention camps, or have been moved by the authorities to other factories throughout China. Citizens of Xinjiang outside the camps are subject to a system of mass surveillance and predictive policing.
The Catholic Church must be speaking out more forcefully on the situation in Xinjiang, Farr said.
“And the Pope has spoken out about this, but I sense that because of the desire not to offend the Chinese, some within the Catholic hierarchy are pulling their punches. This is just flatly un-Catholic.,” he said.
“It is the Catholic position that every human being ought to have religious freedom, it is deeply theological.”
The regime of Xi Jinping “both understands and fears the power of religion,” Farr said.
Catholicism, he said, “poses a particular difficulty” to the CCP because of its “distinct doctrine” and “teaching authority” of bishops in communion with the Pope.
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said that the Chinese Communist Party sees Christianity as dangerously “successful” with so many followers worldwide, and the underground Church in China as the “only nationally-supported institution with an ideology, belief system, separate from the Communist Party.”
Consequently, Shea said, the Chinese Communist Party is intolerant of the very existence of underground churches separate from their party system.
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