- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

ROME (Agence France-Presse) — Nine priests of China’s underground Roman Catholic Church have been arrested in Heibei, a northern province, the Catholic press agency AsiaNews reported on Friday.

Yesterday in Beijing, however, a senior official in China’s state-sanctioned Catholic church denied that his association was cracking down on churches loyal to the Vatican. AsiaNews, a missionary news service close to the Vatican, had said nine priests from the underground Catholic church in Heibei province were arrested by police Wednesday as they gathered near the city of Baoding to pray.

The AsiaNews report called the reputed arrests part of a campaign by the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association to subdue the underground church in Heibei, a stronghold of Catholic sentiment in northern China. AsiaNews said the province has an estimated 1.5 million Catholics, most belonging to the unofficial church.

Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Catholic Patriotic Association, said he had heard of no such arrests and denied there was a campaign under way to crush the church, which is loyal to the pope.

AsiaNews, a Rome-based agency with Vatican connections, said the motive for the reputed arrests was not known, “but it’s probable they were arrested just because they met over the Christmas period for a prayer session in a place that has not been recognized by the government.”

There are as many as 15 million Catholics in China, divided into the “official” church, which appoints its bishops under Chinese government control, and the underground church that maintains links with the Vatican.

The official church claims about 5 million adherents, and the clandestine church as many as 10 million. AsiaNews has reported that at least six bishops of the underground church had either disappeared or been detained in Heibei province.

New strains in relations between China and the Vatican appeared last month after Chinese government authorities approved the ordination of a new priest without the pope’s approval.

The ordination last spring of three new Chinese bishops without Vatican approval led Pope Benedict XVI to denounce what he called a serious violation of religious freedoms. The strains occur despite ongoing discussions between Beijing and the Vatican on normalizing their relations, broken off in the 1950s after China’s Communists took power.

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