China's Communist Party arrested the Vatican-appointed coadjutor bishop of Wenzhou, Msgr. Peter Shao Zhumin, earlier this week because he hasn't been approved by Chinese officials.
The regime has long allowed only bishops approved by Communist state officials to serve in its territory, even if such bishops have officially been appointed by the Vatican.
AsiaNews reported on Thursday that Shao was making preparations to honor the funeral of Msgr. Vincent Zhu Weifang, the original Bishop of Wenzhou who died earlier this week. Christians in the city are saying that Shao was arrested shortly before Zhu's death, with the aim to prevent him from participating in the funeral and taking possession of the diocese.
Shao was taken by police to northwest China "on a trip," sources said, while his secretary, Fr. Paul Jiang Sunian, who is also an unofficial priest by China's standards, was escorted by police to Yunnan.
The sources said that "the bishop and the priests were taken away from the city to thwart a peaceful succession of Msgr. Shao episcopate of Wenzhou."
Police are allowing around 400 people to celebrate mass during the bishop's funeral, but members from the underground community of believers will be banned from participating.
Wenzhou, like other places in China, has both official and unofficial Catholic communities, with the Communist Party only allowing Christians to worship or be appointed to seats of power based on its own rules, rather than what the Vatican decides.
Zhu had reportedly been appointed as part of an effort by the Roman Catholic Church to bring about reconciliation between the two communities, but authorities have continued to divide and punish members of the underground community. He served in a "reform-through-labor" camp for 16 years during the Cultural Revolution, Catholic News Service noted, and was imprisoned from 1982 to 1988.
The city of Wenzhou, where 120,000 Catholics live, has sometimes been called "China's Jerusalem," because of all its houses of worship.
It has been targeted, alongside churches in other provinces, in a nationwide church demolition campaign by the government. State officials have been taking down church rooftop crosses and sometimes shutting down entire churches, which has led to protests and clashes with Christians. Hundreds of believers have been arrested, alongside human rights activists and priests.
Even government-appointed megachurch pastors have faced arrest, such as Pastor Gu Yuese of Hangzhou's Chongyi Church, who spoke out against the crackdown on churches earlier this year.
Bob Fu, founder and president of China Aid, an organization that documents persecution of Christians in China, told The Christian Post back in February that "the top leadership is increasingly worried about the rapid growth of Christian faith and their public presence, and their social influence."
"It is a political fear for the Communist Party, as the number of Christians in the country far outnumber the members of the Party," Fu told CP.