Communist officials in China interfered with the funeral of an elderly underground bishop, citing concerns with spreading the coronavirus. However, some Chinese Christians believe the government restricted the funeral due to the bishop’s faith.
According to UCA News, the burial of Bishop Joseph Ma Zhongmu, China’s oldest and only ethnic Mongolian bishop, was moved from 8 a.m. to 5 a.m. by government officials. Authorities also restricted people from attending his funeral, only allowing 15 Catholics, a bishop, and two priests to attend.
Bishop Ma, who was not recognized by the government, died on March 25 at the age of 100. He died of an age-related illness, said an official communication from Ningxia Diocese.
The government cited restrictions in place against gatherings as a step to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China. However, local Catholics suggested the interference was due "to the identity of Bishop Ma."
“Authorities blocked the entire street and no priest could approach it. They also did not allow participants to bring mobile phones or take pictures,” one source told UCA News.
Sources also pointed out that his obituary named him only as “Father Ma Zhongmu” as the late bishop belonged to the underground church, which is not officially recognized by China’s communist government.
Bishop Ma was sent to jail during the Cultural Revolution along with other Catholic priests and released in April 1979. Although he was not recognized by the government, he maintained good relations with the authorities.
In recent years, China has upped its persecution of Christians, destroying churches, burning down crosses, and restricting religious expression online in efforts to “sinicize” religion, or bring it into unity with Communist Chinese culture.
Additionally, numerous reports have emerged of authorities across China enforcing policies that prohibit religious customs and rituals to be used during funerals.
In December, the government of Wenzhou city’s Pingyang county in the eastern province of Zhejiang adopted the Regulations on Centralized Funeral Arrangement.
Under the new rules, “clerical personnel are not allowed to participate in funerals,” and “no more than ten family members of the deceased are allowed to read scriptures or sing hymns in a low voice.”
The new rules aim to “get rid of bad funeral customs and establish a scientific, civilized, and economical way of funerals.”
Last April, officials broke up an 11-person Christian funeral in the province of Henan that was honoring a deceased member of the congregation. Officials accused attendees of “hiding” their actions in the countryside and threatened them with jail time. The police registered the personal contact information of the attendees and told them that they could be investigated at any time.
“When my father died, village officials threatened to arrest us if we didn’t conduct a secular funeral. We did not dare to go against them,” a villager from Gucheng town in Henan’s county-level city of Yuzhou told Bitter Winter.
“My father had been a believer for several decades. He is persecuted even after death.”
Recently, China Aid President Bob Fu warned that over the last two years, President Xi Jinping’s “war on religion” has reached its “worst” in 40 years. He accused the president of turning faith into a “tool for the indoctrination of Communist ideology.”
“Clearly the aim is to exterminate any independent faiths,” he said, referencing not only the Christian faith, but the faith of Muslims, Buddhists, and others.
“This is a very, very serious signal,” he said.