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The nephew of a Chinese bishop who was arrested 23 years ago has said he does not know where his uncle is incarcerated, or even whether he is still alive. “His whereabouts are unknown and I don’t even know if he is alive or not. I am upset with tears every time I think of this 87-year-old man. Please pray for him,” Su Tianyou told UCANews recently.
His uncle is Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding, in China’s Hebei province, southwest of Beijing.
In 1996, the bishop was arrested during a procession, and charged with conducting “unregistered” religious activities: Su had refused to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the government recognized Catholic Church in China, and was instead a member of the “underground” Church- in communion with Rome, and appointed a bishop by Pope St. John Paul II, but unrecognized by the Chinese government as a bishop.
It was not the first time Su was arrested. According to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Human Rights Commission, Su has spent 40 years in prison, “without charge, without trial.”
“Before being arrested in 1996, Bishop Su Zhimin was held off and on for 26 years either in prison or forced labor camps. The Chinese government deemed him as ‘counterrevolutionary’ because, since the 1950s, he has refused to join the Patriotic Association,” the Human Rights Commission says.
Su reportedly escaped Chinese detention in 1997, but was rearrested.
“In November 2003, his family discovered him by chance at a hospital in Baoding, surrounded by police and public security. He has not been heard or seen from since, despite repeated international inquiries,” according to the Human Rights Commission.
Su’s nephew, Su Tianyou, told UCANews that he met in 2015 with Guo Wei, a Chinese official who told him that the bishop might be released if there were an improvement in Vatican-China relations.
In September 2018, Beijing and Vatican officials signed a provisional agreement on bishop appointments, that was intended to unify the underground Church and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
According to Su Tianyou, neither Vatican nor Chinese officials have indicated whether Su might now be released. In October 2018, Hong Kong’s Bishop Michael Yeung said that his diocese continued to pray for Su, and hope for his release.
“Whether he is in prison, or kept secret in some other place, or whether he has already died, nobody really knows,” Yueng told Reuters.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s latest report, issued April 29, noted that despite last year’s Vatican-China deal on the appointment of bishops, “repression of the underground Catholic Church increased during the latter half of the year.” The commission, known as the USCIRF, is a bipartisan group that advises the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State on international religious freedom issues.
Among the report’s inclusion of commissioners’ “individual views” were those of Johnnie Moore, who called the deal “one of the most alarming incidents as it relates to religious freedom in the entire year.”
“Within days of the Vatican negotiating its deal, the Chinese used it as cover to embark upon the closure of several of the nation’s largest and most prominent unregistered church communities,” Moore wrote.
Moore believes the Vatican “now bears a significant moral and legal responsibility to help solve the problem which it helped created—albeit inadvertently—by providing China license to viciously crack down on Christian communities (as cited in this report), and by providing the Chinese government further cover to continue its incomprehensible, inexcusable and inhumane abuses of Muslim citizens in the western part of the country.”
“While I am entirely for direct engagement on these issues, including with the most severe violators in the world, that engagement must not result in these types of unintended consequences, as has been the case in China. The Vatican made a terrible mistake, which it must take seriously. This debacle must be dealt with urgently and seriously.”
April’s USCIRF report also highlighted the plight of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China. To date, between 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs— or about 10% of their population— have been detained and sent to “re-education camps” to be subjected to abuse and political indoctrination.
The report calls on the US government to sanction those in the Chinese government responsible for the detention of the Uyghurs.