88-y-o Chinese bishop who refused to join Communist-controlled church feared dead

Catholics sing on Christmas eve at a church in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, China, December 24, 2015.
Catholics sing on Christmas eve at a church in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, China, December 24, 2015. | (Photo: Reuters/Jon Woo)

An 88-year-old underground Chinese bishop, who was arrested for refusing to join the state-approved Catholic Church, is feared dead as state officials urge the Vatican to recognize his assistant as a bishop in his place.

Bishop James Su Zhimin was last seen 17 years ago by a Catholic in a hospital in Baoding, Hebei province — six years after he was arrested for his refusal to join the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and charged with conducting “unregistered” religious activities.

Bishop Su’s nephew, Su Tianyou, told UCA News that the Chinese Communist Party had asked the Vatican to appoint Coadjutor Bishop Francis An Shuxin in his stead, leading some to believe Bishop Su is dead. 

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The outlet notes that Bishop An was Bishop Su’s assistant who was arrested in 1996 for his affiliation with the underground Catholic church. After remaining under house arrest for 10 years, Bishop An was released after agreeing to work for the CCPA. 

However, Baoding’s underground church no longer recognizes him as their bishop, considering him a “traitor who left his faith to pursue a life of comfort,” according to UCA News. 

Bishop Su was a member of the Church, in communion with Rome, and appointed a bishop by Pope St. John Paul II, but unrecognized by the Chinese government as a bishop.

According to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Human Rights Commission, Su spent four decades in prison “without charge, without trial.” Prior to his arrest in 1996, the Bishop was held off and on for 26 years either in prison or forced labor camps. To this day, attempts at memorializing him or holding public events in his honor “have met with hostile police action,” says HRC. 

With the latest demand from the CCP on Bishop An’s appointment, Su Tianyou is asking the Vatican to take Bishop Su’s case and demand his release.

"The Vatican should be able to take the lead in the negotiations and demand that Bishop Su be released," Su Tianyou said, adding that the Vatican's cooperation with Beijing is a betrayal of Catholics who have refused to bow to the CCP’s demands. 

"The Vatican cannot forget the bishops in prison, but the CCPA teases them," Su Tianyou said.

In 2018, the Chinese government signed a deal with the Vatican to regularize the appointment of bishops. However, critics said the deal seemingly legitimized China at a time when it had a long record of oppression against religious groups.

As much as 50 percent of China’s estimated 10 million to 12 million Catholics worship in communities not registered with the Chinese government.

Rights group Amnesty International reports that for decades, many Catholics, Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners have been harassed or even imprisoned for practicing their beliefs. 

Since the amended “Regulation on Religious Affairs” came into force in 2018, house churches reported further crackdowns across the country. Authorities have removed hundreds of crosses from church buildings, vandalized church properties, ordered churches to close, and harassed and monitored church leaders and members.

In April, a house church pastor in China’s Hunan province was arrested for “inciting subversion of state power” after he refused to join the state-sponsored church. His whereabouts are unknown.

In December, Pastor Wang Yi, head of one of China’s largest unregistered churches, was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of subversion of power and illegal business operations.

China ranks as the 23rd worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List. China has been named by the State Department for years as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom. 

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