On September 13, 2023, Fr. Joseph Yang Xiaoming, from the diocese of Wenzhou, Zhejiang, south of Shanghai, was found guilty of breaking the law by refusing to register with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association ( APCC), led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The priest was convicted of “fraud” and “impersonating religious personnel,” ChinaAid reports. The administrative sanctions imposed by the court include “cessation of his [priestly] activities, confiscation of illegal income, amounting to 28,473.33 yuan (US$3,913) and a fine of 1,526.67 yuan (US$210),” reported UCA News.
According to AsiaNews, Yang Xiaoming, 33, was born in Longwan, a district in Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province. He was ordained in 2020 by Bishop Pierre Shao Zhumin. In May 2021, shortly after his ordination, the Longwan District Religious Affairs Bureau initiated legal proceedings against Fr. Yang.
The priest presented to the court an ordination certificate “issued by the Bishop of Wenzhou and the Longwan District Religious Affairs Bureau.” Now, “the Longwan district government… recognized the authenticity of the document in court, thus recognizing that he had been ordained in accordance with the rules of the Catholic Church.”
Bishop Zhumin was appointed coadjutor bishop of Yongjia Diocese in 2011 and bishop of the diocese in 2016, both times with a papal mandate; however, it was not approved by the APCC. Bishop Zhumin has repeatedly refused to recognize the APCC and has been detained several times, most recently on February 18, 2023. ChinaAid has not received any information on his status or whereabouts.
Over the past five years, the CCP has steadily increased the centralization of monitoring of religious activities in China. In 2018, the National Religious Affairs Administration (NRAA), formerly known as SARA, was placed under the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which is under the direct control of the Party Central Committee.
In December 2019, administrative measures for religious groups were published and came into force on February 1, 2020. This 41-article document enacted stricter provisions for religious expression by imposing new rules on the structure, function, and administrative oversight of religious groups.
According to Bitter Winter, which closely follows religious persecution in China, Article 3 states: “Without the approval of the Department of Religious Affairs of the people's government, or registration with the Department of Civil Affairs of the people's government, no religious activities on behalf of religious organizations are permitted.”
Article 17 specifies that members of the clergy must comply with the directives of the CCP: “Religious organizations must make the directives of the CCP known to the clergy and the faithful … in order to instruct and direct the clergy and the faithful to support the CCP government, the socialist system, the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
In 2021, SARA issued new regulations that further restrict the freedom of religious groups, especially measures relating to the management of religious clergy, with the establishment of even stricter control and guidelines for clergy, by imposing heavier sanctions. Article 3 reiterates the need for the clergy to be loyal and “adherent to the direction of the sinicization of religion in China, to act to maintain national unity, religious harmony, and social stability.” Article 8 states that: “The clergy, when publishing religious information on the Internet, must comply with the relevant provisions of the national regulation on information on the Internet.”
About Article 33 he states that: “the national administration of religious affairs must establish a database on the clergy; religious affairs departments of local people's governments shall provide and update basic information on clergy, including rewards and punishments, cancellation of records, and other information.”
On May 23, 2023, the Catholic Clergy Database was finally launched. Registration is mandatory, and if a clergy member is found guilty of violating any of the rules, their official membership can be canceled and their religious functions suspended.
While government officials say the database was created to crack down on fraud, Fr. Yang's case reveals it is a pretext by the state to force stubborn clerics to register with sanctioned religious bodies: this is a concrete application of the 2021 measures relating to the management of the clergy.
Fr. Yang's arrest is the latest example of the government's attack on Catholic clergy and highlights a broader concern about the trajectory of religious freedom in China.
It comes after Pope Francis’s visit to Mongolia. At the end of the Papal Mass, the Pope declared: “I would like to warmly greet the noble Chinese people. I wish everyone the best. Move forward, always move forward. And I ask Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens.” Obviously, Xi Jinping wants more.
Additionally, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi was in Beijing this week as the Pope's special envoy to help promote peace and humanitarian initiatives amid the war in Ukraine. Faithful to their policy, the Chinese laders took advantage of his presence to condemn Fr. Yang. So far, the Holy See has not commented on the conviction of the Catholic priest.