Society

In Hebei, Where Chinese Bishops Loyal To The Pope Vanish

In this traditionally Catholic province, government authorities are quietly removing the prelates who stayed loyal to the Vatican.

A priest during his daily Mass in Maotuan Village, North West China
A priest during his daily Mass in Maotuan Village, North West China
Brice Pedroletti

CUNMOYU — The village of Cunmoyu (pronounced "Tsunmoyu") and the proud, white domes of its new churches appear well before the destination is reached: Built against a small mountain, it overlooks the dry, brown plains of Hebei, the province around Beijing.

But Cunmoyu has another distinctive feature: Almost all of its residents are Catholic.

In the cemetery at the edge of the village, two imposing, black marble headstones sit at the center of a forest of white crosses: They belong to two former bishops of the Yicheng diocese, a district of the province of Hebei, about 150 km (100 miles) southeast of Beijing. The epitaphs, a succession of incarceration dates, indicate that the former died in 1989, the latter in 1993.

A third prelate, their direct successor and the diocese’s last official bishop, Monsignor Côme Shi Enxiang, could join them soon, on condition that his body or his ashes are returned to his family. Informed on March 31 of the death of the bishop, who was 94 years old — and had been abducted in 2001 by the Chinese political police — there has so far been no such sign.

A life's sacrifice

“We started the preparations and waited a whole night in vain in his home village, Shizhuang. Then the family attempted to reach the local authorities. They answered they didn’t know anything,” says Father Thomas Yang Linghui, a priest in his forties from the Yicheng diocese, waiting, like his colleagues, for news on the disappearance of his bishop 14 years ago.

Ordained a priest two years before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, Monsignor Côme spent nearly half his life in labor camps, prison or secret detention. He was part of those resolute Chinese prelates, loyal to the Vatican and who always refused to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, subordinated to the Communist Party of China.

The CPC declares itself “independent” from the Vatican and appoints its bishops, irrespective of the dogma of the Roman Church that states that the Pope alone has the authority to choose bishops. The standoff over ordinations is at the heart of a longstanding conflict that blocks the Vatican and China from having formal diplomatic relations.

The majority of Chinese bishops are recognized both by the Holy See and the Chinese Patriotic Church — those who are not recognized by the Pope are exposed to excommunication — the Vatican’s repeated attempts of finding a modus operandi with Beijing often hit the wall. On March 12, the spokesman of the Holy See, Father Federico Lombardi, suggested once more to Beijing the adoption of the “Vietnamese model,” according to which Hanoi decides on candidates put forward by the Vatican. The spokesperson of China's ministry of foreign affairs retorted that the Vatican had to “accept the historical tradition and the reality of Chinese Catholics.”

The Hebei and Yicheng dioceses, rich with a Catholic tradition that goes much further back in time than Communism, have long been a battlefield between Chinese authorities and the clergy loyal to Rome. Hebei’s bishops loyal to the Pope keep “disappearing.” In detention, secret or not, and sometimes body and soul.

In April 1992, says Eglises d’Asie, the information agency of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, the body of Monsignor Pierre-Joseph Fan Xueyan — the Baoding clandestine bishop who had been in detention since 1990 — “was returned to his family in a plastic body bag. One of his legs was broken and his face bore obvious traces of violence.”

The solemn inauguration mass of his successor, Jacques Su Zhimin, was celebrated in 1995 by Monsignor Côme, at the side of another underground bishop, Monsignor François An Shuxi, who, at the time, was an auxiliary bishop of Baoding. The ceremony took place in Donglu, a village of the Hebei province known as the site of a reported apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1900.

Slipping away

Furious that they did not manage to prevent the installment ceremony, authorities hunted down the three bishops, who went into hiding. Monsignor An Shuxin was arrested in 1996. As for Monsignor Su Zhimin, he was confined to his home, but eventually escaped. Arrested again in 1997, he has not been heard from since. Monsignor Côme spent five years in hiding before his “abduction,” which took place in Beijing, on Good Friday, in April 2011.

Discord

In detention, only Monsignor An Shuxin agreed to join the Patriotic church. “One of the rules of the Church is not to be political," insists bitterly a priest in the region, in his sixties, who wishes to remain anonymous. "But the government wants to choose the bishops and only miscreants could accept.” Freed in 2006, Monsignor An Shuxin is now the official bishop of Baoding.

By persecuting bishops, the protectors of the unity of the Church, the Chinese authorities know they are sowing discord. “In 2001, after the disappearance of Monsignor Côme, the situation became quite complicated in the Yicheng diocese," the same anonymous priest noted. "And it’s still quite chaotic today.”

The diocese is now managed by an administrator, also clandestine. Of course, Yicheng’s illegal parishes have more freedom than before, but priests cannot proselytize.

“The Patriotic Church had more liberties for that. We dedicate ourselves to our parishioners and to those who come to find us,” explains Father Thomas. As for the Patriotic Church, it is suspected of coveting the goods, and the flocks, of its "rival."”

In the village of Yongle, where Father Thomas has been the parish priest since 2012, workers are renovating the church, built in 1988. One day, officials of the Bureau of religious affairs of the Hebei province and the Yicheng district showed up without a warning. The priest slipped way.

Thomas explained wryly: “Let’s say they pretend they don’t know I exist.”

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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