China: Underground Church Priest Missing

April 19, 2023
St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral of Baoding Diocese

Fr. Xie Tianming of the Diocese of Baoding has been missing since April 10, Chinese Catholic sources told AsiaNews. The priest belongs to the underground Church, which refuses allegiance to the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics (APC) which reports to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Fr. Xie Tianming's disappearance comes amid reports of the release of ten underground priests from the same diocese who were arrested in the early months of last year. The “official” Catholic Church, which follows CPA guidelines, has consecrated and inaugurated new churches in recent weeks.

According to local sources, Fr. Xie was arrested in order to force him to join the official Church. In such a case, the authorities lock the priest in a secret place and subject him to “brainwashing” sessions to “re-educate” him politically. The priest risks being detained for a long time, until he gives “certain evidence” of a change in mentality.

This form of detention is called guanzhi: it is not strictly speaking imprisonment, but a restriction of movements and activities. Clerics must submit to political sessions and coercion to join the “official” Church: an act that involves membership and servility to the CCP.

Starting in 2018, after the signing of the agreement between China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops, renewed in October 2020 and 2022, the United Front of the CCP launched a campaign to force all priests to profess their adherence to the Party and join the official Church. Those who refuse are often expelled from their parish and end up in detention.

According to the sources contacted, at least half of the priests in Baoding Diocese joined the official Church after a period of guanzhi. The same treatment was reserved for the 10 clergymen who disappeared during the first four months of the year 2022.

Authorities have released them on several occasions over the past year, but not before forcing them to participate in indoctrination sessions. Since then, some have joined official bodies; those who have not done so remain under observation and can no longer exercise their ministry.

An underground priest released in early 2023, after almost a year in detention, explained that he did not want to change his position. He is now confined to his home under the control of the authorities and has been forced to give up his pastoral service.

This is further proof of the toxicity of the Sino-Vatican agreement, from which the only ones to have benefited are the Chinese authorities and whose victims have been mostly the “clandestine” priests.

Baoding's underground Catholic community is one of the oldest and largest in the Chinese Church. Its bishop, Monsignor James Su Zhimin, has been in the hands of the police for more than 25 years, having spent more than 40 years in forced labor under the regime of Mao Zedong.

The local Catholics split after the Auxiliary Bishop of Baoding, Msgr. Francis An Shuxin, decided to join the CCP's APC. Msgr. Francis An Shuxin is “officially” the current Bishop of Baoding.